Former Vancouver Olympic boss John Furlong’s strength tested as wife dies in Irish car crash

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

John Furlong has scaled the heights of success and fame, overcoming tremendous pressure to engineer the triumphant 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

He faces a different, darker test of strength now, losing his wife in a car crash while in the midst of a legal offensive against allegations of sexual and physical abuse against students while he was a Catholic youth worker decades ago.

Deborah Sharp Furlong died Thursday in an accident while vacationing in Ireland, Furlong said in a statement issued Friday morning to news media.

"While our extended families are beyond words over this loss, we would like to thank our friends and well-wishers for their heartfelt concern and condolences as our families face this sudden and painful tragedy," the statement said.

"While I understand that there may be interest in more details, please understand that at this extremely difficult time, I request privacy for our families. Thank you."

[ Related: Wife of former Vancouver Olympic CEO John Furlong killed in crash in Ireland ]

The Vancouver Province, citing Ireland's national police service, said Deborah Furlong's car collided head-on with a 4x4 vehicle. She was flown to hospital but pronounced dead shortly afterward. The driver of the other vehicle suffered minor injuries.

Messages of condolence surfaced quickly on Twitter, such as this one from B.C.'s former finance minister.

Deborah Furlong, 48, was John Furlong's second wife. According to Global News, she worked in TV production, including shows such as Arctic Air, The Guard and Cold Squad.

John Furlong has a large, extended family, including five children and 11 grandchildren. But the sudden, tragic death of his wife is bound to leave a hole in the emotional support he'll need as he pursues his libel suit against the Georgia Straight newspaper and freelance sports reporter Laura Robinson.

Furlong was showered with honours, including the Order of Canada, for quarterbacking Vancouver's Olympic bid, then as CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee producing the hugely successful, people-friendly event.

He was touted for public office and became an in-demand speaker. Exactly a year ago he became executive chairman of the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer club.

[ Related: Allegations of rape, abuse hit Furlong family 'like a wrecking ball' ]

But his reputation as public man came under serious threat when the weekly Vancouver-based Straight published an article last fall alleging Furlong's autobiography, "Patriot Hearts," distorts the story of his journey from young Irish immigrant to Olympic organizer.

Robinson's piece alleged Furlong left out an account of his stint as a teenage missionary volunteer working in a predominantly aboriginal school in northern B.C. She claimed former students told her Furlong, working as a phys-ed teacher, hit and kicked them and hurled racially-tinged verbal abuse at them.

Robinson went on to allege incidents of sexual abuse, including claims he had forced sex with his former common-law partner and that he physically abused his first wife, Margaret, something she's categorically denied.

[ Related: Former Vancouver Olympic boss John Furlong faces explosive new abuse allegations ]

Furlong was quick to reject the allegations and is suing Robinson, the Straight and its editor and publisher for libel and defamation.

In its statement of defence, the paper said the story amounted to fair comment and that Furlong brought the harm on himself through his own actions. The paper also claimed the article constituted "responsible journalism," a relatively new defence that argues even if a story is erroneous, a publication isn't libel if it can prove it took all necessary steps to verify the facts.

None of the allegations have been proven in court and the case may not come to trial for some time.

Furlong's family has stayed largely in the background through triumph and tragedy. His children issued a statement supporting him when he counter-attacked against the damaging article.