By Karolos Grohmann
(Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee on Tuesday said it was disappointed that the voters in Innsbruck stopped the city's plan to bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.
Some in the Olympic movement said awarding two back-to-back Games at the same time could now be on the cards.
The IOC has been struggling in recent years to convince potential hosts of the benefits of hosting the Games and about a dozen cities having pulled out.
In order to secure the long-term future of the Games the IOC in September awarded the 2024 and the 2028 Summer Olympics to Paris and Los Angeles after they were the only remaining bidders.
"The IOC shares the disappointment for the Austrian Olympic Committee, the many supporting athletes and the promoters of the project who worked on it with so much energy and commitment," an IOC spokesman said.
"This would have been a solid foundation to develop an excellent candidature for sustainable Olympic winter Games."
The city, venue of the 1964 and the 1976 Games as well as the 2012 winter youth Olympics, saw its plans derailed on Sunday when 53 percent of voters in a local referendum voted against the planned candidacy.
"The IOC will continue its exploratory talks with interested NOCs and cities from America, Asia and Europe within the framework of its new candidature process," the IOC official said.
"We are certain that an excellent host city for the Olympic Winter Games 2026 will emerge from this process."
Bids from Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Japan, Canada and the United States among others are still likely.
The IOC on Tuesday said it would take a more "pro-active role" with cities, introducing a non-committal "dialogue stage" for those interested in the 2006 Games, running from October this year to October 2018.
"In October 2018, the IOC Session, upon recommendation of the executive board, will invite a number of interested cities to participate in the candidature stage," the IOC said.
The candidature stage will then last a year from the current two years until the IOC vote in 2019.
However, the Austrian refusal is a further slap in the face for the IOC's Agenda 2020, a set of reforms introduced in 2014 and aimed at reducing the size and cost of the Games to make them more attractive to potential hosts.
It has so far failed to deliver on that front with four cities pulling out of the 2022 campaign and two more bids killed off at referendum stage. Four cities stopped their bids in mid-race for 2024 before Innsbruck's refusal for 2026.
"Auf Wiedersehen Innsbruck and Austria," IOC member Richard Peterkin posted on Twitter. "Another Olympic bid falls by the wayside following a referendum rejection. Not even close. Disruptive.
"It's a setback for the Olympic Games. Not insurmountable, and somewhat understandable, but new initiatives and responses issues affecting public unease and displeasure with sports organizations need urgent closure."
Peterkin, who has repeatedly urged the IOC to take stronger action against the flagging interest in the Games, said a dual awarding such as that for the 2024 and 2028 Olympics was an option, even if it was supposed to have been a one-off.
"Dual award now looking possible for 2026 if two strong bids remain in the running," he added. "It worked once, and could work again. Horses for courses in these troubled times."
The United States Olympic Committee last week said they would want to be in the running again in case of a dual awarding.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Nick Mulvenney)