Although a top winter sports nation, Switzerland has not hosted a Winter Olympics since 1948. After Graubünden voters rejected a proposed candidature in March, a new bid to host the Games in Valais is in the offing – but what will it take to convince the locals?
Swiss Olympics history started off well when the chic resort of St Moritz won the right to host the second winter Olympic Games in 1928, and then again in the wake of the Second World War in 1948. They didn’t realise it then, but it would be the last time any resort in the country would experience Olympic fever for itself.
In the decades that have followed, the sports world has become disillusioned. The last Winter Olympics bid to enjoy popular support which looked to have a real chance – Sion for 2006 – ended in disappointment when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose Turin in neighbouring Italy.
Proposals by other Swiss cities – Lausanne in 1994, Bern in 2010 – to host the Games have suffered from a lack of popular backing. Most recently, in March 2013, 53% of voters in canton Graubünden rejected a plan to submit a joint bid for St Moritz and Davos to host the 2022 Games.
Reasons for failure
Jörg Schild, president of Swiss Olympic, the umbrella organisation for Swiss sports, says the Graubünden failure was at least useful in that it sent a clear signal to international sporting authorities.
“If the IOC doesn’t change the criteria for submitting bids, there is no chance that such a project will pass the test of the voters in a democratic country like ours,” Schild told swissinfo.ch.
“The awarding of the football World Cup to Qatar, the excessive size of the Sochi Games, corruption, drugs and match fixing are a disaster for the credibility of sport. These are the real reasons which explain the rejection of the bid by the people of Graubünden.”
Gian Gilli, head of the Swiss mission for the Sochi Games and the man who spearheaded the Graubünden 2022 project, has come to terms with his defeat in his home canton.
“Certainly the financial and ecological arguments weighed heavily in the balance, as well as rivalries between some of the valleys in the canton. But I am still convinced that Switzerland is cut out for organising a winter Games,” he says. “We have all the skills and infrastructure necessary. A well thought out project on a human scale with a concept adapted to suit the Alps could do the trick as early as 2026.”
However there is currently no concrete plan for such a project and Schild is adamant that any bid would need the support of the local population.
“The doors of Swiss Olympic are always open to a new bid, but the impetus must come from the ground up,” he says. “We cannot impose an Olympic Games on Switzerland the way Vladimir Putin has done in Russia;”
A flame in Valais?
Experts agree that canton Valais, with such well-known ski resorts as Zermatt, Crans-Montana and Verbier, is the only region which has any hope of winning popular support for hosting a Winter Olympics. Crushed by the failure of the Sion 2006 bid, the Olympic dream is slowly coming alive again in the mountainous south western canton. The cantonal parliament has recently mandated the tourism department of the local University of Applied Sciences to undertake a feasibility study on the possibility of a new bid.
Philippe Nantermod of the centre-right Radical Party and a member of the cantonal parliament, is one of those behind the idea.
“We would like to organise a different kind of Games, which would be sustainable and on a human scale. I believe that it is possible to convince a majority of the Valais population with such a project,” he says.
No date has yet been decided but Nantermod does not believe any bid will get off the ground “before the middle of the 2020s”.
One of the aims of a new bid is to reinvigorate tourism in the region “which is suffering in particular from foreign competition and the strong franc,” according to Nantermod. Supporters also argue that hosting the Olympics would provide the impetus needed to renovate aging infrastructure.
Will a majority in Valais be swayed by this kind of argument? Greg Curchod, head of TSE Consulting which specialises in marketing campaigns for countries or regions hoping to host large sporting events, is not convinced.
“The arguments always being put forward that they would develop infrastructure and tourism don’t work anymore,” he says.
Curchod says a change of strategy to one that better incorporates the interests of the local population is needed.
“The successful bids are the ones which are integrated into the development policy of the city or region. A sporting event serves to accelerate the process, to validate the investments which in the end will have a real impact on people’s lives,” he says.
Curchod cites the London Olympics as an example: “The eastern suburbs of the city needed to be redeveloped. The Games were part an existing policy and simply helped to structure the project.”
First the people, then the IOC
But persuading the locals is not enough, because in the end it is the IOC which will decide whether or not to award Switzerland an Olympic Games.
“Since the 1976 Montreal Games [which went eight times over budget], the number of bids has diminished and they are coming more and more from authoritarian countries. If the IOC wants to preserve what the winter Games are really about, a Swiss bid could be ideal,” suggested Jean-Loup Chappelet, professor at the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration in Lausanne and former executive director of the Sion 2006 committee.
“Games in Switzerland would do a lot for the image of the IOC,” says Curchod.
Schild agrees. “The members of the IOC would certainly be in favour of holding Games somewhere where there is plenty of snow. It would be a change from Turin and Vancouver, where it took almost two hours to get to the competition venues.”
Professor Martin Müller of the University of Zurich, is sceptical. “For ten years the IOC has been saying it wants to reduce the size of the Games but the opposite has happened. The stakeholders – the IOC, the national Olympic committees, sponsors, television stations etc – will not give up the enormous flows of revenue which themselves depend on the size of the event. That’s why the winter Games can only really be organised by large cities with an appropriate hinterland.”
In Switzerland, only cities the size of Geneva, Zurich or Lausanne would interest the IOC, says Müller.
(Translated from French by Sophie Douez)