Sion 2026 Referendum Too Close to Call

(ATR) Sion organizers are "cautiously optimistic" while Swiss IOC member Gian-Franco Kasper says Sunday's vote is "50/50".

(ATR) The president of the International Skiing Federation believes Sion 2026 still has a chance of staying in the Olympic bid race but admits Sunday’s referendum is impossible to predict.

"It’s about 50/50. It can go in both directions," Gian-Franco Kasper told Around the Rings on Friday.

Kasper dismissed as "pure speculation" a recent survey of voters in the Swiss canton of Valais which suggested 58 percent of them would vote "no" or "probably no" on funding the Sion 2026 bid.

There are questions about how the poll, released on May 22 and conducted by the research institute Sotomo for Swiss public television, was conducted. Around the Rings understands that it was not statistically representative because it was possible for people to participate in it as often as they wanted.

A poll released earlier in May had shown an almost even split among potential voters.

Sion vice-mayor Christian Bitschnau, a member of the bid team, tells ATR it is hard to gauge how the referendum will play out, even at this late date.

"Difficult to say as the campaign has been long, hard and very emotional. The standard divisions (left wing /right wing) that you see in other votations or elections do not apply on a topic like the Olympics."

Bitschnau adds "I expect the turnout of voters to be quite high, with a participation rate much higher than for other items put to the vote or elections. I am cautiously optimistic – we’ll see!"

Sion 2026 bid organizers launched an informational campaign in March that has featured several types of events. Information sessions and debates were held about three times a week, often more frequently. In addition, the campaign was a part of major gatherings in Valais, including the Tour of Romandie cycling event. The Sion bid team also had a strong presence at farmers’ markets, grassroots sports events and festivals throughout the canton.

Swiss athletes have done their part in getting the word out. Olympic alpine combined champion Michelle Gisin, Olympic downhill champion Dominique Gisin, and two-time Olympic cycling champion Fabian Cancellara were some of the athletes who worked on a social media campaign launched three weeks ago that reached more than three million users.

Organizers must contend with recent history that suggests a tough challenge to convince voters. Three separate referenda on Olympic projects have failed in Switzerland in the last decade.

Kasper insists the IOC has put great effort into trying to communicate to voters and persuade them in the cost-benefits of bidding and staging the Olympics through its recent reforms aimed at lowering bid spending and lavish investment in Games projects.

But he suggested the Swiss voters may still not be listening.

"To a certain extent yes. It’s difficult to do in Switzerland… they're too near to the IOC. They think the IOC gets too much money. I think they [the IOC] do all they can but no one believes them," he told ATR.

Asked if he was hopeful Sion 2026 could pursue its Olympic bid ambitions, he said: "I am an IOC member. I am Swiss. We wait to see how it goes on Sunday."

Should the referendum pass, the canton would contribute 100 million Swiss francs to the 2026 bid. If the 220,000 voters of Valais oppose it, the bid is over. However, there is a scenario where another Swiss bid in Valais could rise out of the ashes of this one.

"We are voting on a financial issue linked to the organization of the 2026 Games," explains Bitschnau. "The vote is at cantonal level. A negative vote of Sion (city level) but a positive vote in Valais (canton level) would technically still allow the bid to proceed further."

Ahead of the vote on Sunday, the Sion 2026 bid received a shot in the arm on Friday night. Voters in Kandersteg in the canton of Bern overwhelmingly approved spending CHF1.2 million to cover minor construction work at the venue that would host the ski jump normal hill and nordic combined events should Sion host in 2026.

Hans Stöckli, Sion 2026 vice-president and senator from the canton of Bern tells ATR"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."

Written and reported by Mark Bisson and Gerard Farek

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