BidWeek: A Short History Of Olympic Bid Referendums

By Robert Livingstone

BidWeek, Reporting from Toronto, Canada – As Calgarians prepare to head to the polls Tuesday, to weigh-in on the city’s potential bid to host the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, it may help for them to know that they are not alone in helping to determine the direction their city will head for the next eight years – and perhaps many more years beyond.

Last century, it would have been unusual for cities to engage taxpayers with plebiscites or referendums to determine whether to pursue an Olympics.  But today, it has become commonplace.

Many more Winter Olympic bids have faced public votes than their Summer counterparts due to the complexity and cost of the special venues that need to be constructed.  Almost two-thirds of the bids for the past two Winter Olympics awarded have dropped from the race for various reasons.

In very recent years, the prospect of a public vote alone has often been enough to cause the abandonment of a bid – and most votes that have proceeded have failed to get the majority support needed to move the project forward.

Other times, a referendum was held for an applicant city in the domestic phase – meaning another city in the same nation could still enter the international race.

But there is some precedent showing that Calgary’s 2026 bid could survive the November 13 decision and make it to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) host city election in June (see full list of votes at end of article).

Already, of the seven cities that sent letters of interest in April to become 2026 host city – two have fallen to a referendum, or the prospect of one.

Sion in Switzerland became the most recent casualty when 54 percent across Valais canton voted against the proposed funding of CHF 100 million needed to host the Games.  The well-prepared bid that won the Swiss domestic nomination was defeated in the IOC’s home country with a legally-required and binding referendum that was focused on the funding issue, and not technically a debate about the Olympics itself.

IOC President Thomas Bach later said he thought it was only about the money, and not a referendum on the Olympics, or the IOC itself – but many voters made it clear that the reputation of the Olympic movement swayed their votes to the ‘no’ side.

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

A recent history of explosive cost overruns while planning the Games, and corruption issues that have surrounded host city elections, have soured the perception of what hosting the Olympics is about.

Austria lost two 2026 bids, the most recent when a petition was completed forcing a referendum in Graz.  Shortly after plans for a vote were confirmed, the Austrian Olympic Committee (ÖOC) abandoned plans because, they said, there was lack of political will to move forward.  More so, it was feared that a second consecutive referendum loss for the same year would be too embarrassing for the organization to absorb.

Earlier, before the IOC was accepting nominations, two-time host city Innsbruck had been Austria’s 2026 choice.  But those plans were overturned by voters last year when more than 53 percent in the city voted against the project, fearing the costs and risks involved.

Also in the run up to the 2026 application, Swiss cities St. Moritz and Davos voted 60 percent against seeking the nation’s nomination – paving the way for Sion to win it instead.

For the 2024 Summer Games, one city fell to a public vote, while two others collapsed quickly after such a vote was considered.  Only two of five applicants survived to the final ballot, and the IOC awarded both the Games – Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.

Hamburg’s 2024 Olympic bid was ended when voters very narrowly decided against hosting plans.  In Bach’s home country of Germany, about 52 percent chose not to take on the risks associated with hosting the Games.

Later, several attempts to complete a petition to force a referendum in Hungarian capital Budapest paid off – and a mandatory vote was scheduled.  But soon after, relations between the government partners broke down on the prospect of a politically motivated vote – and Prime Minister Viktor Orban saw that it could risk his standing in a general election the following year.   Budapest’s mayor thought it impossible to move forward without the national government’s full support and called for the end of the bid.

Before nominations were closed, a 2024 bid from Boston was called off by the city’s Mayor when a strong local opposition movement took to social media and softened public support to below the 40 percent level.  A referendum was scheduled, but the groundswell of negativity surrounding the bid forced the Mayor and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to amicably cut ties instead – and with enough time for the nomination of Los Angeles ahead of the deadline.

Passers by read an Olympic bid poster at the Citadella in Budapest Hungary February 20, 2017 (GamesBids Photo)

Passers by read an Olympic bid poster at the Citadella in Budapest Hungary February 20, 2017 (GamesBids Photo)

The 2022 Olympic Winter Games bid race was the most volatile in recent history.  Six cities applied but four European cities dropped out, one-by-one, leaving only Beijing to defeat Almaty in Kazakhstan in a close final vote.

On the way to the vote that resulted in the Chinese Capital being the first city to host both the Winter and Summer Games, four cites organized referendums.  Due to political in-fighting in Krakow, Poland – a vote was hastily called mid-campaign and almost 70 percent voted against the project amid record-high voter turnouts.

Ahead of the 2022 applications, two referendums prevented cities moving forward.  Munich, after the German city placed second to PyeongChang for the 2018 Games, saw 52 percent against a follow-up project.  In St. Moritz and Davos, 53 percent were against a Swiss application.

Munich had a successful referendum when 60 percent supported a 2018 Winter Games bid.

A bid by Oslo in Norway to host the 2022 Games won a referendum with 53.5 percent of the vote, enabling its campaign to move forward.  It was the most recent bid to win such a vote.  Things didn’t work out for the capital though as the bid later dropped out after a loss of government support.

We need to search further back – to 2010 – to find more referendums that helped shape the selection of Olympic host cities.

Vancouver became the most recent city to win a plebiscite and win the IOC election to host the Games.  With 64 percent support, the 2010 bid survived a non-binding plebiscite that was planned mid-bid as part of a campaign promise by an incoming elected Premier of British Columbia.  The vote came at a vulnerable time for the bid, just days before the visit of the IOC Evaluation Commission and weeks before the host city election.

Berne wasn’t as lucky.  Earlier in the race, the Swiss city was forced to withdraw after 78 percent voted to stop the bid in its tracks.

Canada’s Quebec City, while seeking the national nomination along with Vancouver and Calgary for the 2010 Games, earned 77 percent support for the bid before the Canadian Olympic Committee chose to go West instead.

Voters in Valais canton in Switzerland weren’t always as opposed to bidding as they were earlier this year.  Prior to bids for the 2002 and 2006 Games, both that were eventually defeated in final IOC elections, voters approved the projects in separate referendums.

Interest in bidding for the Olympic Winter Games has diminished over the past two decades (GamesBids Infographic)

Interest in bidding for the Olympic Winter Games has diminished over the past two decades (GamesBids Infographic)

Other referendums have been held prior to those listed here and dating back to the 1960’s, and all of those were regarding the Winter edition of the Games.

The only city to reject a Games that had already been awarded to them by the IOC was Denver 1976.  As the city contemplated approving funds for the project, a referendum was called and in 1972 about 60 percent voted against financing the Winter Olympics.  The IOC instead chose Innsbruck to host because the Austrian city already had most of the facilities required from its staging of the 1964 edition – and could deliver in the shortened timeframe.

Referendums, and plebiscites, come in all flavours – and are becoming more frequent.

In Calgary on Tuesday, voters could end the 2026 Olympic bid – or they can throw it a lifeline.  But a vote of approval will not automatically guarantee its survival as we have learned many times before.

But most Olympic taxpayers never got a vote.  Keep that in mind if you are in Calgary and are contemplating heading for the polls.

A List of Recent Referendums
Compiled by GamesBids.com

2028 Summer Games
Vienna, Austria  72 percent voted against considering a bid.  The IOC never invited applicants for these Games that were later awarded to Los Angeles uncontested

2026 Winter Games
Valais canton (Sion) Switzerland – 54 percent opposed
Innsbruck, Austria – 53 percent opposed
St. Moritz and Davos (Graubünden), Switzerland – 60 percent opposed
Graz, Austria –  Referendum scheduled before bid cancelled due to loss of government support

2024 Summer Games
Hamburg, Germany – 52 percent opposed
Budapest, Hungary – Petition forced referendum before bid cancelled
Boston, USA – Referendum scheduled before bid cancelled

2022 Winter Games
Krakow, Poland – 70 percent opposed
St. Moritz and Davos (Graubünden), Switzerland – 53 percent opposed
Munich, Germany – 52 percent opposed
Oslo, Norway – 55 percent in favour bid, later withdrawn due to loss of government support

2018 Winter Games
Munich, Germany  60 percent voted in favour of a bid

2010 Winter Games
Bern, Switzerland – 78 percent opposed
Vancouver, Canada – 64 percent in favour
Quebec City, Canada – 77 percent in favour but Vancouver nominated instead

2006 Winter Games
Valais, Switzerland – Majority in favour of bid

2002 Winter Games
Valais, Switzerland – Majority in favour of bid

1998 Winter Games
Salt Lake City, United States 57 percent favour preparation for 1998 or 2002 Olympic Games

1976 Winter Games
Denver, USA – About 60 percent rejected Games that had already been awarded.  Innsbruck hosted instead.

Robert Livingstone

About Robert Livingstone

Robert Livingstone is a senior editor, award-winning journalist and author, covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. He is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians. Follow him @enotsgnivil