Referendums Becoming New Olympic Reality

(ATR) Forcing a referendum in Hungary the latest example of growing trend in the Olympic bid process.

(ATR) Munich, Graubünden, Krakow, Boston, Hamburg, Graubünden, again, and now Budapest show a new trend in Olympic discourse, the public referendum.

Referendums have sunk five Olympic bids over the last two Olympic bidding cycles and potential Olympic referendums ended the Boston bid and now may end Budapest’s. Some referendums curtailed a potential bid before it was submitted to the IOC while others came at different stages during the candidature process.

Michael Heine, Director of the International Center of Olympic Studies at Western Ontario University, tells Around the Rings that these public critiques of the bid process are a relatively new, and troubling, phenomenon for the IOC.

Public referendums represent one of the few ways citizens can directly influence how Olympic bids are run. Most bids work to solicit public feedback in search of support, a key factor that IOC members take into consideration, but work without public accountability. In the current bid process, the IOC courts willing government partners and requires a hosting contract be signed ensuring the staging of the Games. Rarely does the public vote on aspects of the bid, which are run by private entities.

After more than 265,000 Hungarians signed a petition triggering a potential referendum, an IOC spokesperson told ATR "this is a national process" and the IOC would not comment. The spokesperson declined to say if the IOC was discussing changes to the process to prevent referendums from derailing Olympic bids.

Heine says that the "sustained effort" required to run a referendum campaign has not been seen until recent Olympic history. The campaigns are often "run like political campaigns" and according to Heine are organized in ways to both stop established bids and prevent cities from starting bids.

"It is completely new the IOC is severely shaken by it… previous forms of resistance didn’t have that degree of organization" Heine said. "Boston was the model and it still is. It is definitely the model for what is happening and what happened in Hamburg and Budapest."

Much of the citizen frustration comes from the vast economic investment needed to host a modern Olympics, Heine says. Thus, referendums provide a tool for taxpayers to have a say in the process.

Jules Boykoff is a professor at Pacific University who studies the Olympics and wrote "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics". He told ATR that Budapest citizens securing a referendum on the bid is "undeniably part of a wider pattern." Boykoff argues that the recent IOC reforms of Olympic Agenda 2020 do not have enough substance to show citizens the Olympics are committed to change.

"Serious citizen concern has emerged in prospective Olympic cities as awareness about the significant downsides of hosting the Games have received more attention," Boykoff said. "This puts the IOC in a real bind. We’re approaching the point where the Olympics only remain popular as a general idea floating in the ether of the global imaginary, but when specific cities consider hosting, alarm bells go off in the general population."

If the Budapest bid even survives to see the referendum through,the IOC would be wise to look at the motivations driving recent referendums.

Dennis Pauschinger, an Erasmus Mundus PhD Fellow from the Universities Hamburg and Kent working on sport mega-event security, supported the referendum that defeated the Hamburg 2024 Olympic bid. Pauschinger said to ATR that citizens want to "at least see the options on the table" before committing the large-scale resources needed to host an Olympics.

The public referendum allowed citizens to break "a powerful alliance" between local governments and businesses trumpeting only the positive aspects of the Games in Hamburg. The no campaign focused on highlighting the unrealistically low budget for the Games, and the need for city-wide infrastructure investment.

"A crucial point was that the government promoted a participation process in a series of events that proved to be false," Pauschinger said. "It was never a question IF the citizens wanted the Games in these events, rather HOW they wanted it. In the end, the people understood how the whole concept was build upon false promises."

A key distinction in public discourse Pauschinger says is that citizens are not opposed to the idea of the Olympic Games. Instead citizens are showing concern for the concessions they must make to host the month-long event.

"When a city withdraws a bid or citizens reject in a referendum their city’s bid is against the ways in which global sports government bodies in alliance with all the organizing stakeholders are preparing the Games," Pauschinger says. "It is against the over-budgeting, unnecessary urban transformations, militarization of public security, security driven massive implementation of surveillance technologies and the health damaging mantra of faster, higher, stronger that induces doping."

Written by Aaron Bauer

25 Years at #1: Your best source of news about the Olympics is, for subscribers only.