That's why the 2015 Pan American Games in his hometown of Toronto are so close to his heart.
The 48-year-old was named chef de mission of Canada's Pan Am team Thursday, and said the legacy from the Games will give young Canadian athletes opportunities he didn't have.
"Toronto 2015 is a game-changer," Harnett said.
Harnett is the only Canadian cyclist to win three Olympic medals, capturing silver in the 1,000 metres in 1984 in Los Angeles, and then bronze in the sprint at both the 1992 and 1996 Games in Barcelona and Atlanta. He accomplishment those feats despite spending several months of the year living and training in California because Canada didn't have a suitable velodrome.
"These Games matter," he said. "They matter because of the unprecedented investment into sport in this region, it's something we in sport have long waited for, and it's critical, it ensures that our athletes continue to pursue excellence right here at home and that we as a sporting nation retain the world class coaching that athletes require to compete and win.
"I had to travel to the United States to get access to proper facilities as I prepared to take on the world. Well to that I say 'No more.'"
It's no surprise that of all the Pan Am venues going up around the GTA, he's most thrilled about the velodrome in Milton, Ont., just west of Toronto, not only because it will be a training base for Canada's top cyclists, but because of its dual use as a community centre. Three basketball courts will be built at the facility that Harnett says will also help get young kids interested in cycling.
"To me that's the perfect marriage of what sport opportunity is, because not everybody is going to become a Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Andrew Wiggins," he said. "We can say the same about Sidney Crosby. I was a kid that was introduced to a sport that was off the beaten track by a guy that cared. When you have these facilities in existence that naturally occurs."
Harnett said he grew up in Thunder Bay playing mostly hockey. His high school football coach — who was also the president of the Thunder Bay Cycling Club — suggested he take up cycling as a way to keep in shape for hockey in the summer.
"I quickly learned I was more passionate about one sport than the other, and four short years later I was at the Olympic Games," said.
The member of both Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and Olympic Hall of Fame is also a veteran of two Pan American Games, winning gold in the 1,000-metre time trial and bronze in sprint in 1987.
The announcement was made at the Pan American Sports Organization (PASO) general assembly, which has brought some 350 delegates from Olympic committees and international sport federations to Toronto.
A video montage of Harnett's top sporting moments preceded the announcement, to which Harnett joked: "Talk about a flattering introduction, I haven't seen that many photos of me in one place since my ex returned the 'Curt box' back in high school."
Olympic champion kayaker Adam Van Koeverden congratulated Harnett.
"This is a guy who I've been looking up to as long as I've been an athlete . . . and as long as I've been watching shampoo commercials on TV," Van Koeverden joked, a nod toward Harnett's famous Pert Plus commercial that aired in the run-up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut said, after listing Harnett's accomplishments, "Honestly, with those criteria there was only one real choice for us as chef de mission."
Harnett will lead the largest team Canada has ever fielded for the Pan Am Games.
The 1983 Pan Am Games in Caracas, Venezuela, were Harnett's first major multi-sport Games, and he said they were huge in his preparation for his silver-medal Olympic performance a year later, in terms of adapting to situations like bad bus schedules or training times that are thrown at athletes.
Harnett was the assistant chef at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico — and was also arguably the Canadian team's biggest cheerleader, leading cheers and handing out flags at numerous sports events.
Canada's chef de mission in Guadalajara was former fencer Jacques Cardyn.