Olympic Plebiscites: A History

Written by Jacqueline Peterson

With Calgary poised to hold a plebiscite on a 2026 Olympic bid sometime in November, we thought it would be worthwhile to compile a list of past Olympic ballot initiatives and their results.  Prior to 2000, plebiscites and referenda were common in Switzerland (with its rich tradition of direct democracy) and the U.S. (where voters often need to approve infrastructure bonds, debt limits, or tax increases, resulting in implicit elections on a city’s Olympics bid). But it was not until the turn of the century that popular consultation and approval of Olympics bids became widespread.

In the timeline below, we list all of the plebiscites we’ve found in which residents voted directly on whether a city should host the Olympics:

  • 2026: Valais (Sion) Switzerland – Against (54%)
  • 2026: Innsbruck, Austria –Against (53%)
  • 2026 – Graubünden  (St. Moritz and Davos), Switzerland – Against (60%)
  • 2024 – Hamburg, Germany – Against (52%)
  • 2024 – Budapest, Hungary – Bid Withdrawn; After citizen petition forces referendum, City decides not to proceed further with bid.
  • 2024 – Boston, USA – Bid Withdrawn; referendum cancelled after it was clear there wasn’t sufficient public support.
  • 2022 – Krakow, Poland – Against (70%)
  • 2022 – Graubünden  (St. Moritz and Davos), Switzerland – Against (53%)
  • 2022 – Munich, Germany – Against (52%)
  • 2022 – Oslo, Norway – For (55%); City decides to withdraw bid anyways amid rising costs and political opposition
  • 2010 – Bern, Switzerland – Against (78%)
  • 2010 – Vancouver, Canada – For (64%)
  • 2010 – Quebec City, Canada – For (77%); Canadian Olympic Association supports Vancouver instead.
  • 2006 – Valais, Switzerland – For
  • 2002 – Valais, Switzerland – For
  • 1976 – Denver, USA – Against (60%); Denver had already been awarded the 1976 Olympics when residents voted against it in 1972, requiring city to abandon its plans 

What are some initial takeaways as Calgary contemplates a 2026 bid? Recognizing the sample size is small, we nevertheless note:

  • Plebiscites are becoming more common.
  • Voters have supported Olympic bids in the past.
  • Olympic plebiscites held in Canadian cities have always passed (though the sample size is just two!). However, most Olympic bid referenda fail (in total, 5 For, 9 Against, 2 bids withdrawn)
  • Recent patterns point towards a growing trend in which referenda are increasingly likely to fail (or bids be withdrawn if failure seems likely).
  • Plebiscites are not always binding – Oslo decided not to proceed with a bid despite electoral support

Three European cities contemplating a 2026 bid have dropped out after their referenda failed. Graz, Austria remains the only city remaining in contention (other than Calgary) that isn’t in Asia (Sapporo, Japan, and Erzurum, Turkey are bidding). But a petition is currently underway in Graz to force a plebiscite in the city, which seems increasingly likely.  If Graz does hold a plebiscite and it fails, Calgary’s chances are very strong, as a Sapporo or Erzurum Olympics would mean four consecutive Winter Olympics being held in Asia.

Did we miss an Olympics bid referendum or plebiscite? Please let us know so we can update the list!

Jacqueline Peterson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

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