Ottawa (AFP) - Calgary's bid to stage the 2026 Winter Olympics faced a major hurdle Tuesday, with residents of the Canadian city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains voting in a referendum likely to determine if it proceeds any further.
Thirty years after hosting the 1988 winter sports spectacular, when the likes of British ski-jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards and Jamaica's bobsled team entered Olympic lore, Calgary is hoping to host the event once more.
But bid officials are facing an uphill battle convincing Calgary's 1.24 million residents that the city should foot a Can$390 million (US$295 million) chunk of the bill for hosting the event.
Preliminary referendum results are expected in late evening (0500 GMT).
If the "No" side wins, the province of Alberta has already said it would withdraw its funding commitment, effectively killing the bid. If the "Yes" side wins, a divided city council would be left to decide on Monday whether or not to proceed with the bid.
Speaking for the "Yes" side, Calgary 2026 bid chief executive Mary Moran told CBC Radio it would be a tremendous boost for the city.
"The Games would put a global spotlight (on the city) the equivalent of having 31 Superbowls," she said.
"No" side organizer Erin Waite, however, fears massive cost overruns, higher property taxes, and less funding for other municipal projects.
"There will be things over the next 10 or maybe 20 years that we don't do for Calgary because we hosted the Games for the IOC," she told Canada's public broadcaster.
Her skepticism was shared by the city's Calgary Sun newspaper, which voiced its opposition to the bid in an editorial on November 9, saying nostalgia for 1988 should not be a factor in the decision.
"We remember 1988 fondly but understand that was a special moment in time that will never be recaptured," the paper argued.
"Trying to recreate magical memories is a mug's game."
- Olympic fever -
Former Canadian Olympian Jean-Luc Brassard, who won gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, lamented in an open letter that the Games enrich the IOC while athletes get "crumbs."
"By accepting Calgary's candidacy, we are once again accepting the exploitation of the athletes," he said in the letter published by Canada's public broadcaster.
The issue of whether to host the Games has gripped the city for the past two years.
A recent survey of 243 people conducted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found 55 percent against and only 35 percent in favor. Ten percent were undecided.
In the race for the 2026 Olympics, the Swiss city of Sion and an Austrian bid based at Graz have already withdrawn citing lack of either public or political support.
A Calgary withdrawal would leave only Milan and Stockholm in the running when the host city is announced in June in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Ahead of the vote, Mayor Naheed Nenshi urged locals to support the bid, saying Calgary would get back ten times more in investment or about Can$4 billion, than it puts in.
"I'm voting yes because I believe Calgary can host the cleanest, most cost effective games in history. Lets dream big and vote yes," he said in a Twitter message.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail newspaper, Nenshi downplayed concerns of possible cost overruns, saying the city's proposal could be scaled back easily to reduce costs if needed, as it is planning to build only two new venues while upgrading 11 existing sites.
Nearly 80,000 people have already cast ballots in advance polling, leaving 685,000 remaining eligible voters who started lining up at 8 am local time at 160 voting stations.
Election officials also fanned out across the city to canvass the homeless and people bedridden in hospitals.