By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The citizens of Calgary headed to polling stations on Tuesday for a vote that could decide whether the city will throw in the towel or push ahead with plans to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.
After weeks of campaigning and rallies that split opinion in the western Canadian city, a high turnout is expected for a vote that both 'Yes' and 'No' camps have said is too close to call.
While the vote is a non-binding plebiscite, the 15-member Calgary city council, who will meet on Monday to vote on whether to move the bid process forward, is expected to bow to the will of the people, even if the margin of victory is narrow.
Ward 11 councillor Jeromy Farkas told CTV News he is against a bid, but would not override the result of the plebiscite and will honour Calgarians' decision.
"For me I will see my job as asking still the tough questions, holding the teams accountable that are putting forth the bid but ultimately doubling down and making sure if Calgary does choose to host, it is the best possible Games that we can," said Farkas.
No one will be watching the outcome more closely than the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has seen interest in hosting Games dramatically drop as the size and costs of staging an Olympics skyrocket.
A Calgary 'No' vote would leave Sweden’s Stockholm and an Italian bid involving Milan and Cortina D’Ampezzo as the only other two candidates left in the race.
Swiss city Sion, Japan’s Sapporo and Graz in Austria have all pulled out. Last month Turkey’s Erzurum was eliminated from the bidding process, by the IOC which will elect the winning bid in June 2019.
Pro-Games groups and supporters have been forcefully pressing their case ahead of Tuesday's vote.
On the eve of the plebiscite the Calgary Tower, normally only lit for Canadian gold medals during the Olympics, shone brightly.
"Vote Yes" signs sprouted on front lawns while an automated phone message from mayor Naheed Nenshi went out on Monday urging Calgarians to support the bid.
As the sun rose and Calgarians made their way to one of the 160 polling stations, Canadian Olympians past and present took to social media urging everyone to rally around the slogan: "YES Calgary. Our games. Our time".
Opposition to the Games, however, has been no less vocal.
With high unemployment after an oil boom turned bust, Calgarians are anxious about the costs of hosting the Games which have been estimated at C$5.1 billion (2.97 billion pounds) by the Calgary 2026 Olympic bid corporation.
The Canadian city, which also hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics, has some 85 percent of venues in place, but opponents have argued that the cost far exceeds the benefits the Games might bring and the money could be better spent.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)