The Victoria International Track Classic is recognizing the 20 years that have passed since the very successful 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games took place. Many of the events including the closing and opening ceremonies happened in Centennial Stadium, which is located on the grounds of the University of Victoria, where the Track Classic has taken place for 25 years.
Part of the recognition process is to speak with athletes and organizers who were involved with those Games. George Heller was the man at the top, as President and CEO and was largely responsible – with the help from a few friends – in delivering what is considered to be one of the most successful Games to date.
Heller is a successful businessman who was the President and CEO of Hudson’s Bay Company from 1999 to 2006; he also served as Executive Vice President of the company. Heller served as President and CEO of Zellers, Kmart and of Bata Industries Ltd. He holds two Honorary Doctorates from the University of Victoria and Ryerson University.
Below he reflects on the Games and their legacy.
Christopher Kelsall: Here we are twenty years hence from the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games. When reflecting on the Games, do you feel that the legacy from the effort made it worthwhile?
George Heller: Most certainly, aside from inspiring all 15,000 of us that worked together to make an internationally acclaimed success of the Commonwealth Games, the many facilities we built have been put to great use for not only athletes, but also the people of Victoria and Canada.
CK: Victoria’s population seems to be highly active. Perhaps Victoria is a bit of a Canadian recreation mecca. Do you see a difference in the general activity level since 1994?
GH: Success leads to confidence, confidence begets engagement and engagement improves the lives of Canadians. Part of the legacy left behind was a grant of $500,000 to Volunteer Victoria to be used to foster and maintain that incredible enthusiasm to get involved. One can see the benefits today; a very vibrant, involved community.
CK: What do you make of the recent spectacles like the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Summer Games? Are they going too far?
GH: It’s getting old! We’re losing the plot, the ruinous costs and political intrigue don’t auger well for the future, we will run out places that can host these events because they have become over the top. The losers in this race to the top will be amateur athletes, the Pan Am Games in a Toronto will cost 10x what the Victoria Games cost in constant dollars, just how will this experience for athletes differ from one Games to the other? I do know the taxpayers will see a difference.
CK: Can you draw parallels between heading the games and running an operation like the Hudson’s Bay Company, Zellers and Bata?
GH: Leaving aside the magic that comes with an international event, the requirements are the same, only the product is different. Develop a plan in detail that encompasses all the elements required to deliver the product to the customer you targeted, be rigorous in executing the plan and timeline, allow for the unknown. Build a first rate team, explain their roles and importance to the effort, hold them accountable but offer to help if they put their hand up for assistance. Be visible, over communicate, lead from the front, lead as if you were elected to lead, do not act as if you were ordained to lead. Listen to all, and then make a decision, the buck stops with you! Get the financials right, you can’t make everyone happy but you must deliver what you promised, you cannot entertain everyone’s wish list at the expense of financial rigour and accountability. The biggest difference was the fact we had 15K people working on the Games, less than 2% were paid employees, the balance were volunteers, you have less “leverage” but handled correctly, at least as much if not more spirit and determination to get “it” right!
CK: Regarding the magic of the Commonwealth Games, were you prepared for the success and the unique sense of accomplishment once the Games were over?
GH: In all honestly, the media running up to Games was brutal, seemed to me they were hoping for a disaster, made for better copy I guess. Felt that the only believers in ultimate success were the 15k of us working our butts off, they were who I was working for and wanted to deliver a successful set of Games. I felt and still feel pride a sense of accomplishment in leading an army of incredible people to their potential against the odds or more correctly, the cynics and critics!
CK: What forms of exercise do you get up to these days?
GH: The 20 odd years I spent being inspired by our amateur athletes has encouraged me to keep running almost daily after all these years, maybe not as far, certainly not as fast, but for an old guy, not bad!
CK: Were you in Centennial Stadium when Angela Chalmers and Robyn Meagher went 1-2 in the 3,000m? How magic was that?
GH: I became a convert! Frankly, prior to the Games, I never was interested or watched amateur or professional sports, it was only when I became involved directly with athletes that I caught the magic, still am fortunate enough to call many of ‘ 94 athletes and beyond, friends.