BREAKING NEWS

Budapest ended its bid to host the 2024 Olympics on Wednesday, citing a lack of unity after a political movement opposing the move collected more than a quarter of a million signatures to force a referendum on the issue.

Running alongside powerhouses Los Angeles and Paris, Budapest had been considered a long-shot candidate, pinning its hopes on the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Agenda 2020 initiative aimed at promoting less lavish events.

When politics and sport collide

The bid had turned into a political issue, however, a year before the country holds parliamentary elections.

Polls showed a growing number of Hungarians were against the bid, and a group of young professionals and students took to the streets and began campaigning for a referendum.

This “Momentum” movement considered a bid for the Games an unaffordable splurge that would invite corruption, already a big problem in the central European country.

Budapest’s City Council voted formally on Wednesday to annul the bid and ask the Hungarian Olympic Committee, (HOC), to notify the IOC about the withdrawal.

HOC Chairman Zsolt Borkai, a former deputy of the ruling Fidesz party, was not immediately available to say when that step is expected. The government and Budapest Mayor Istvan Tarlos said they wanted to put the issue behind them as quickly as possible.

Budapest mayor Istvan Tarlos had rejected calls for a referendum on the issue in 2015, saying people had inadequate information about the bid, even though a 1,372-page feasibility study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers was already publicly available at that time.

The Momentum movement had collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue, but the Budapest city council, HOC and the government moved quickly to end the bid themselves.

“It was not our idea to host the Olympic Games in Budapest,” Tarlos told the city council. “We started it at the HOC’s request.”

“But what the opposition has done about the Olympics is an outright failure of character. They just created this circus to score political points.”

Ferenc Karsay, a Fidesz mayor in southern Budapest, where the Olympics would have taken place, compared the political battles around the Games to “well-poisoning”.

“A few months before the IOC’s final decision, and a year before the elections, you purposely sacrificed the Olympics,” Karsay told the opposition.

The Socialist opposition unsuccessfully sought at the last minute to force a referendum after all.

“It would only be fair for the city council to reject this motion and leave the decision about whether to host the Olympics to the voters,” Socialist council member Erzsebet Nemeth said.

Fallout will continue

The decision leaves Los Angeles and Paris as the only remaining candidates. The International Olympic Committee will choose the host city in September.

Budapest’s decision to withdraw came after Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government said opposition politicians who earlier supported the bid had shattered consensus on the issue and changed heart.

The withdrawal of the bid was decided with 22 votes in favor and six against, with support coming mostly from councilors from Orban’s governing Fidesz party.

“Everything that is going on is no longer about sports,” Tarlos concluded after a heated debate at the extraordinary session of the assembly. “The saddest thing … is what kind of image the country is creating itself abroad with this circus surrounding the Olympics.”

The opposition said the city government was letting down voters by preventing them from expressing their opinions about the bid.

“If over a quarter of a million Budapest citizens have determined that they want to decide in a referendum about the Olympics, it is only right if we give them this opportunity,” said Antal Csardi of the Politics Can Be Different party.

The Momentum Movement, a new political association, gathered more than 266,000 signatures in 30 days in favor of holding a vote. Some of the other opposition parties helped collect the signatures, far more than the 138,000 minimum needed.

The opposition also criticized the government for apparently reneging on its promise to carry out the Olympic-related infrastructure developments even if the city did not win the bid.

Despite comments from Orban’s chief of staff that the money originally earmarked for the Olympics could be spent on rural projects instead, Tarlos said he would wait for the government’s official position before getting involved in the debate.

Political analysts said holding the referendum and keeping the issue on the agenda for months did not favor Orban’s plans to seek a fourth term in elections scheduled for April 2018.

Hamburg, in 2015, and Rome last year also withdrew their bids. The IOC reiterated last week it would review its bid process because it now produces “too many losers.”