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Budapest mulls dropping Games 2024 bid - mayor

Latest update : 17/02/2017

© AFP/File / by Peter MURPHY | A poster shows Hungarian Olympic sabre gold medal winner in Rio de Janeiro 2016 and London 2012, Aron Szilagyi, advertising Budapest's bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games, in Budapest on January 17, 2017

BUDAPEST (AFP) - 

Budapest's mayor said on Friday he is considering dropping the bid to host the Olympic Games in 2024, as activists announced they have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the effort.

"If it turns out that enough Budapest residents have signed in favour of a referendum, then I will strongly consider whether the bid should be withdrawn," Istvan Tarlos said.

His comments came as Momentum Movement (MoMo) confirmed that it has obtained 266,151 signatures, well in excess of the 138,000 signatures necessary to trigger a ballot.

The referendum would ask Budapest residents if they agreed that City Hall should withdraw its application to host the Games.

The activists, aged mainly in their twenties and thirties, unloaded dozens of boxes containing the signatures at City Hall on Friday.

"It is a message to (Prime Minister Victor) Orban, (his ruling) Fidesz party and Tarlos that it was a mistake not to ask the people about the Olympics," MoMo leader Andras Fekete-Gyor said Friday.

Spokespersons for the Budapest 2024 bid team declined to comment on MoMo's announcement to AFP.

The upset came just seven months before the International Olympic Committee is set to decide between the candidate cities on September 13 in the Peruvian capital Lima.

- 'Traitor' -

Budapest is vying with Paris and Los Angeles for the summer Games, after Hamburg -- following a referendum -- and Rome dropped out, both citing financial concerns.

The sports-mad strongman Orban has championed the bid, launched in 2015, as a reward for his country's rich Olympic record: only nine countries have won more medals in the history of the Games.

The initiative was backed by the Budapest mayor and approved by City Hall, as well as the Hungarian parliament and the Orban-led government.

However, a series of recent polls have shown clear majorities in favour of withdrawing the bid.

It has particularly galvanised younger people and opposition parties critical of Orban.

MoMo, which launched the so-called "Nolimpia" drive in January, claimed budget overshoots and corruption could "at least double" the official cost projection of almost 800 billion forints (2.6 billion euros, $2.8 billion).

Instead the monies would be better spent on improving the health and education sectors, the group said.

But bid supporters insisted that Budapest, which unlike Paris or Los Angeles has never hosted the Games, is more suited than its rivals to the IOC's low-cost Agenda 2020 strategy.

MoMo's referendum drive has sparked anger among government supporters.

Anyone who signed the forms was a "traitor", said one right-wing media pundit. Several activists were also physically attacked at signature booths during the month.

A civil organisation linked to Fidesz warned last week it could appeal the legality of the referendum drive in the courts.

Officials now have up to 45 days to verify the collected signatures and advise Tarlos to call a ballot.

If no legal challenges were mounted, the earliest likely date for a referendum would be in May.

by Peter MURPHY

© 2017 AFP