By Karolos Grohmann
BERLIN (Reuters) - Hamburg's bid to host the 2024 Olympics collapsed on Sunday after the majority of the city's residents voted against the multi-billion euro project in a referendum, killing off the candidacy and leaving officials in shock.
Hamburg's withdrawal reshuffles the cards in the race to land the world's biggest multi-sports event, with Paris, Los Angeles, Budapest and Rome left in contention and an International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision due in 2017.
"We expected a different result," bid CEO Nikolas Hill said in a conference call. "The result nevertheless is clear for us, we have to accept it. There will be no discussion or rethinking it. That is it. That is what they wanted."
Almost 52 percent of the 650,000 votes cast went against the 7.4 billion euro ($7.84 billion) project, the second time German voters had scuppered a planned Olympic bid after Munich's failed attempt for the 2022 winter Games in 2013.
Hamburg was the only one of the five bidders to vote on whether the city should bid for the Games, with the result a major embarrassment for German sports chiefs who had insisted on another bid after the crushing defeat of Munich 2022 in the regional referendums.
"Having followed the discussions in Germany over the last weeks, this result does not come as a complete surprise," an International Olympic Committee spokesman said. "With this decision a great opportunity for the city, the country and the sport in Germany is lost."
Hamburg's withdrawal comes after four of six bid cities dropped out midway through the campaign for the 2022 winter Games, while Los Angeles replaced Boston as the U.S. choice for the 2024 summer Olympics earlier this year after the latter pulled out over financial concerns.
"The city (Hamburg) also misses the investment of the IOC of about $1.7 billion to the success of the Games, which compares to the 1.2 billion euro Hamburg wanted to invest," said the IOC spokesman.
"Now there will be a strong competition with four excellent candidate cities.... With these strong competitors we all can look forward to (an) exciting Olympic Games 2024, whoever the winner will be."
Hamburg's bid was affected by a string of unrelated events, Hill said, including the deadly attacks in Paris by Islamist militants earlier this month, the refugee crisis and worldwide sports scandals.
Roughly one million refugees and migrants are expected to arrive in Germany this year alone with authorities struggling to cope and critics of the Games saying money should not be spent on sports venues.
Germans have also been shocked to see the country's soccer association under investigation over a 6.7 million euro payment to world governing body FIFA that was allegedly used to earn votes in favor of Germany's 2006 World Cup bid.
The German soccer affair is one of several major sports scandals along with the FIFA corruption affair and widespread doping claims in Russian sports, chipping at the credibility of major sports organizations.
"The attacks in Paris, the (German World Cup 2006) affair, the refugee situation, the doping scandals. They did not have anything to do with this but it has been irritating and disturbing people," he said.
The rejection is also a blow to the IOC whose wide-ranging reforms voted in last year were aimed at making the Games more attractive to host cities after a string of withdrawals in recent years. Rio de Janeiro is preparing to host the 2016 Olympics while Tokyo will stage the 2020 summer Games.
"The people of Hamburg took a decision and Hamburg will not be bidding to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games," Mayor Olaf Scholz told reporters. "It is a binding decision," he said.
Germans never showed widespread support for Hamburg, picked over Berlin earlier this year, and even a narrow referendum victory would not have won it any bonus points with the IOC, eager to see strong local support for potential host cities.
"We have to accept the vote of the citizens," said German Olympic Sports Confederation chief Alfons Hoermann. "Olympics and Germany are not a good match at the moment."
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ken Ferris)