Swiss Head To Polls Sunday To Determine Fate Of Sion 2026 Olympic Winter Games Bid

Voters across the Canton of Valais in Switzerland are set to head to the polls Sunday and decide whether the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games bid by Sion 2026 will move forward, or instead join a long list of cities forced to cancel plans at the hands of public dissent.

Sion 2026 supporters at Olympic bid event (Sion 2026 Photo)

Constituents will decide whether they agree to approve funding of CHF 100,000 (USD $101,000) towards the organization of the Games that will ultimately cost CHF 2.4 billion with other contributions coming from the federal government, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and sponsors.

Bid proponents got a boost Friday when the Bernese resort village of Kandersteg approved funding of CHF 1.2 million (USD $1.2 million) to improve ski jump facilities should Sion host the Games.

“Tonight, a very large majority of the residents of Kandersteg acknowledged the added value of doing some minor renovation and construction work on a sports venue which is of great economic importance for the region, and that makes me very happy,” Berne Senator and Sion 2026 Vice President Hans Stöckli said.

“This vote bodes well for Sunday’s vote in Valais. I truly hope that the people in Valais will be as enthusiastic as the residents of Kandersteg and that they look into the future with trust and optimism.”

Voters across Europe have voted down several bids in the past decade due to fears that they will be left responsible for massive cost overruns associated with venue and infrastructure construction that often accompanies the organization of the Games.

Innsbruck’s bid in Austria was cancelled last year when over 53 percent voted against the project.  For the 2022 Games won by Beijing, voters in Poland’s Krakow rejected their city’s bid and Oslo and Stockholm dropped out due to public opposition.

Last year 60 percent in the Canton of Graubünden rejected a competing domestic Swiss bid, and a 2022 bid by Davos was defeated by a public vote.

A 2024 Summer Games bid by Hamburg in Germany was toppled when voters narrowly rejected the project.

Sochi infamously spent $51 billion building most venues for the 2014 event from scratch, and the Rio 2016 Games were billions over budget and suffered from delays and corruption, reinforcing stakeholder fears that hosting the Games could result in economic ruin.

Sion has modeled its bid on new IOC rules and strategies that are said to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of organizing the Games.  The “New Norm”, a plan where the IOC has identified best practices and will work closely with cities to implement them, could save future Winter Olympic organizers $500 million.  Agenda 2020 reforms will help limit the need for new venues and infrastructure, further reducing financial risk.

Indeed, construction for Sion’s bid will be limited with most proposed venues already existing or planned as temporary installations.  Organizers hope to mitigate financial risk with an insurance plan.

House of Sion 2026 promotes Switzerland’s Olympic bid at House of Switzerland in Nations Village at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games (GamesBids Photo)

Recent polls have revealed that as many as 58 percent plan to vote against proposed funding. Polls just days earlier indicated support was evenly split.  Should voters reject the bid Sunday, the project – and the Swiss Olympic dreams – would likely end immediately.

Organizers have remained positive, however, pointing to aggressive public consultations, athlete ambassadors, and social media campaigns that they say are helping building momentum ahead of the vote.

If voters back plans to host the Games, Sion will join up to six other countries who are interested in the race.

Canada’s Calgary is due to face a referendum of its own, likely in November, and on Thursday appointed a chair to the new bid corporation (BidCo).  Japan’s Sapporo has considered a 2026 bid but could switch to 2030 when critical transport infrastructure will be available.

Stockholm in Sweden and an Italian bid from among Cortina d’Ampezzo, Turin and Milan are still seeking government support.  Opponents of an Austrian bid from Graz are petitioning to hold a referendum.

That leaves Turkey’s bid Erzurum that faces security risks from nearby Syria.

There is still the possibility that Sion’s bid, even if successful Sunday, will need to face a national referendum later this year.

The IOC will narrow qualified bids to a shortlist in October and elect the winning city in September 2019.

About Robert Livingstone

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.