Czech Republic may hold national referendum on Olympics

In 2003, Prague Mayor Pavel Bem told International Olympic Committee members that his city would put forth its candidacy for a future summer Olympiad. Despite a wave of criticism, the city plans to submit its application in July 2007 to host either the 2016 or the 2020 summer games. And now Pavel Bem says that there may be a national referendum on the Olympic question.

Prague's Mayor, Pavel Bem, has made a somewhat surprising statement—he says that he'd welcome the entire population of the Czech Republic voting on whether or not Prague should host the 2016 or the 2020 Olympic Summer Games. This comes as a surprise for a couple of reasons: first, preliminary opinion polls have shown that Czechs are not exactly whole-heartedly embracing the idea of hosting an Olympic games. For example, the daily Lidove noviny cites that opponents of the games hover anywhere between 20% and 72%. Many people are worried about how much the games would cost, and others are concerned about what effect such a massive influx of people would have on Prague's historic centre. Secondly, holding a referendum in this country poses some real legislative challenges.

How so? What's the situation in the Czech Republic with regards to referenda?

Pavel Bem
It's quite interesting actually, because this country has still not passed a law on referenda. There is nothing in the legislation outlining how to proceed. This is quite striking actually—especially given how much discussion there was about holding a referendum back in 1992, before Czechoslovakia broke apart, and there we were talking about the existence of a country, not just hosting an Olympic games. The only referendum that the Czech Republic has ever held concerned the vote on membership in the European Union, and that referendum was made possible by a special, temporary law.

Could that happen again in the case of the Olympic bid?

Yes, sure, provided that such a proposal would receive a majority in the Lower House. Theoretically, a special law for the proposed Olympic referendum could be passed before the end of the year, so before the City of Prague intends to put forth its Olympic bid next summer. However, it remains to be seen which political parties will be willing to support a referendum on the Olympic question.

Also, when I spoke to Michael Hvizdala, a Prague City assembly member and a strong opponent of the Olympic bid, he suggested that Pavel Bem's referendum proposal may be tactical:

"When I made the proposal for a Prague referendum on the Olympic question, Mayor Bem voted against my proposal. So I was quite surprised now, when he changed his opinion. But I think it's more or less a wise move on his part—a kind of 'Czech route'—because to hold a nation-wide referendum is a rather complex matter. So I think that given the procedure involved, parliament will not agree with a national referendum."

So there you hear that Pavel Bem's opponents are not exactly taking his remarks at face-value.

Who is actually in favour of Prague hosting a summer Olympics at this point?

Well, obviously Pavel Bem, Prague's Mayor, who is a member of the right-of-centre Civic Democrats. He's a Prague patriot and he's convinced that the Czech capital would host a superb Olympics, and that the city would not suffer a financial loss over the games. However, Bem has strong opponents. One of them is Michael Hvizdala, who you heard from earlier, and his camp stresses the need for Prague to invest money in its infrastructure—such as metro expansion in the southern and northern zones of Prague—and in its green spaces, and not to waste money on massive sports facilities.

What about the proposed Olympic sports facilities—where would they be located?

Well, no final plan has been approved—that will come closer to the date of the official proposal. But plans show that the majority of the big facilities, including the major Olympic stadium, would be built in the north of the city, in the Letnany district. We'll have to wait and see how it all develops in the months to come—and I'd expect that the issue of a Prague Olympics will come up during the spring election campaign.