By Karolos Grohmann
(Reuters) - Seven cities, or joint-bidding cities have expressed interest in hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee said on Tuesday.
Canada's Calgary, Austria's Graz, Swedish capital Stockholm, Sion in Switzerland, Turkey's Erzurum, Japan's Sapporo and an Italian bid involving Cortina d'Ampezzo, Milan and Turin are all in the initial process.
There is considerable Olympic experience in the field with Calgary having hosted the 1988 Winter Games and Sapporo having staged the 1972 edition. Cortina is also a former host, having organized the 1956 Winter Olympics as is Turin in 2006.
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Stockholm has hosted summer Games but despite repeated attempts, has failed to land the winter Olympics. It last bid briefly for 2022 but pulled out mid-race.
The cities will now enter a dialogue stage until October when the IOC will invite an unspecified number of them to take part in the one-year candidature phase.
The IOC has overhauled the bidding process for Games after a sharp slump in interest from potential hosts in recent years, cutting costs for bid cities and slashing the campaign time in half.
"I warmly welcome the National Olympic Committees' and cities' interest in hosting the Olympic Winter Games," said IOC President Thomas Bach in a statement.
"The IOC has turned the page with regard to Olympic candidatures. Our goal is not just to have a record number of candidates, but ultimately it is to select the best city to stage the best Olympic Winter Games for the best athletes of the world."
The IOC has also simplified the seven-year preparation for Games organizers, reducing costs, upping the IOC's contribution and allowing host cities more flexibility in planning for the Olympics and the post-Games use of facilities.
It will elect the winning 2026 bid at its session in Milan in September, 2019 but some cities, including Sion, will need to hold referendums first.
"In a city where we have a referendum we welcome the public consultation," Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi told reporters. "A project of this size has an impact, hopefully a positive one, on the life of cities for a long time."
The IOC said there had already been interest for 2030, from the United States Olympic Committee among others.
The 2022 Winter Games will be held in Beijing after four other cities dropped out of the bid race for fear of soaring costs and size of the Olympics, leaving the Chinese capital and Kazakhstan's Almaty as the only candidates.
More cities dropped out of the 2024 Summer Olympics race with the IOC opting to award them directly to Paris and in turn give Los Angeles, which had also bid for 2024, the 2028 Games.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge)