Sion 2026 switches from 'star' leaders to a bid for Switzerland
By Callum Murray in PyeongChang
The controversial resignations of both the former vice-president and former chair of Sion’s bid to host the 2026 winter Olympic Games in separate scandals in quick succession last year might have caused some short-term damage to the bid, but in the medium and long term has enabled it to focus away from ‘star’ leaders and onto a “bid for Switzerland.”
That is the view of Frederic Favre, the recently-elected sports minister of Valais, the canton of which Sion is the capital city.
Christian Constantin, the high-profile president of the Sion soccer club and one of the bid’s most prominent backers, stepped down as its vice-president last September in a row over a confrontation with Rolf Fringer, the former Swiss national soccer team coach.
Then in December, Jean-Philippe Rochat, who had been named in the Panama Papers leak, stepped down, to be replaced by Jürg Stahl, the president of Swiss Olympic, the country's national Olympic committee.
Speaking exclusively to Sportcal here in PyeongChang, Favre said: “It’s an opportunity. At the start, it was an idea of a businessman [Constantin]. But the people were always asking, ‘Why does he have this idea for this project? What is the target for this person? What is his motivation?' Now with these problems, we have also the solution. It’s the bid of Swiss Olympic, the canton of Valais and the town of Sion. It’s not private, it’s public now.”
Constantin was regarded by many as the engine of the bid, but Favre said: “Now it’s the bid for Switzerland. Jürg Stahl from Swiss Olympic was president of the parliament [he remains a member of the Swiss parliament], a respectable person.”
Favre also cited the involvement of the mayor of Sion and of himself, saying: “Everyone knows us.”
This will be an important factor over the next few months as the bid goes through a consultation process with its stakeholders (political, sporting, economic and cultural) with the aim of allowing “everyone with an interest” to have a say, ahead of a crucial referendum in Valais on whether to proceed with the bid, scheduled for 10 June.
Recent history suggests that submitting an Olympic bid to a public referendum is a highly risky undertaking, but Favre said that, with just 4,000 signatures needed to trigger one, the bid took the view that it was better to take the initiative, adding: “We will only do it [host the games] if the population is OK with it.”
The bid won the support of the Swiss government in a significant milestone last October, as it pledged to provide up to SFr1 billion ($1.02 billion) for the campaign.
Of that figure, SFr8 million would go on the bid process itself, which will culminate with the host city vote in September 2019. Should Sion’s bid be successful, SFr827 million of federal funds would then go to help the organisation of the games themselves. The bid committee estimates the total projected costs at just under SFr2 billion. Security costs would also be met by central government.
Now, the bid needs the support of the entire parliament, in a decision that is due to be made in October. Favre said: “Jürg Stahl is one of the best people to explain it [to the parliament] and find a solution with every political group. We have the Federal Council support, but now the parliament needs to give the green light in October. We’re now awaiting the referendum in Valais and if they say yes it’s incredible to think our parliament would say no.”
The government's backing comes with the proviso that the games would use as much existing infrastructure as possible - of the 19 competition sites, 16 exist or will be in existence by 2020, regardless of the games - with events spread over various cantons to reduce costs. Four other cantons are involved in the project, including Vaud, in which Lausanne (location of the IOC's headquarters) is located, and Berne, two other cities that will each host several events if the bid is successful.
Returning to the issue of the crucial referendum, Favre said: “In Switzerland everyone says ‘no’ to a Sochi-style games [a reference to the large-scale 2014 Olympics]. But the question is, ‘Would you like to organise a new-generation games?', which is what we need. People are also talking about [the problems in] Rio [after the 2016 Olympics], but that’s not a winter Olympic Games. People say Montreal took 30 years to repay [its Olympic debts after the 1976 Olympics], but there they had to build a stadium and metro. That’s voluntary. We have the railway for every place of the bid, and the possibility for public transport for everything.
“Now we are working to get into every region to explain. We’ve already started with groups of 200 or 300 people. Valais has 350,000 people and Switzerland between seven and eight million. We must be near the people because they are very confused. The first problem is to explain what is our responsibility, and what we’ll do. If they’re not ready, it would be a big mistake to come to the IOC and say we are ready.
“People ask about the image of the IOC, doping, a lot of questions. People are sceptical about the Olympics, but it’s all confused with Fifa. Now people say, ‘it’s a lot of money for what?’ We must explain that 90 per cent of [Olympic] money goes back into sport. OK, there is a problem with [the image of] the IOC, we know that, but they want to change that, and we can maybe help.”
The IOC said this week that it has been holding talks about a bid for the games in its new ‘invitation phase’ with four cities - Sion, Sapporo in Japan, Stockholm in Sweden and Calgary in Canada. However, Graz and Schladming, two cities located in the Austrian province of Styria, have also recently said that they are exploring the possibility of launching a bid, while a US bid is also a possibility. The IOC must receive expressions of interest for 2026 by the end of March.
Favre concluded: “We want to propose that the Olympic Games comes home to the Alps. That’s the leitmotif. If they [the IOC] want to come home, that’s us. Last time the games were in Switzerland was in Saint Moritz [in 1948]. Now maybe we have the possibility with a new generation of the games, with 90 per cent of the infrastructure existing.
“The new bid process is a big benefit, and the IOC is doing a lot to help. We will be partners and talk together to understand the best possibilities for a great games. It’s not an exam. In an exam you don’t know until the last day if you are right or wrong. Now we will work together so that we don’t lose time. We have an opportunity to show what we can do in our country, Olympic Games or not.”