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10 Surprising Facts About the Eurovision Song Contest

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The grand final of the 68th Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Malmo, Sweden, on Saturday, May 11. The international songwriting competition is famed for its exuberant performances. However, this year has sparked controversy and protests related to the Israel-Hamas war.

Performers from countries across Europe—and beyond—competed in two televised semi-finals earlier this week. The hotly-anticipated final will see the winner crowned by a combination of votes from viewers around the world and rankings by juries in the music industry. The 2023 contest reached 162 million viewers around the world. In the U.S., viewers can stream the 2024 final live on Peacock, according to Associated Press.

Dean Vuletic, a leading historian on Eurovision, calls the contest “a show of cultural diversity unlike any other,” during a video call with TIME.

Read More: Dutch Contestant Disqualified From Eurovision Song Contest Hours Before Final

Eurovision cemented its new slogan “United by Music” in late 2023 and organizers insist the contest is non-political. But this year’s contest has sparked outrage from pro-Palestinian protesters who have criticized organizers for allowing Israel to participate in the contest.

TIME has compiled 10 surprising facts about the history of the Eurovision Song Contest, notable past winners, controversies, and more.

Eurovision originally started off as a technical experiment in television broadcasting

Organizers wanted to see if they could hold a live, simultaneous, transnational broadcast across Europe. The very first contest was held on May 24, 1956, and only seven countries participated: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, and Italy, according to the Eurovision website

“It really was a showcase of the different musical cultures, popular musical cultures, in Europe,” Vuletic tells TIME.“I think this is why it has continued to attract the fascination of Europeans ever since.”

The contest has increased in popularity and size since then. Now watched by viewers around the world, this year’s competition features performers from 37 countries.

68. Eurovision Song Contest - Rehearsal for the final
Bambie Thug from Ireland with the song "Doomsday Blue" on the Eurovision stage at the first rehearsal for the final in the Malmö Arena in Malmö, Sweden, on May 10, 2024.Jens Büttner—Getty Images

A Holocaust survivor represented Germany at the first contest in 1956

Walter Andreas Schwarz, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, competed for Germany at the first Eurovision. He ended up finishing second overall.

Vuletic says this shows that “countries were already using Eurovision as cultural diplomacy from the very first contest.”

The term “Eurovision” comes from a British journalist

George Campey—who later joined the BBC, where he held a number of senior roles—was a journalist at the London Evening Standard when he was writing an article about European television in November 1951.

“It came about partly by accident,” Campey said in a previous interview with the BBC.

As Campey was typing, he wondered how he could get the phrase “European television” into a headline. He started typing “Euro” and then combined it with “vision.” The newspaper printed the phrase. The “catchy term” eventually caught on, Vuletic tells TIME.

The contest broke a world record

In 2015, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Eurovision as the Longest Running Annual TV Music Competition. The contest has only ever been canceled once—in 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Swedish pop group Abba, performs during
Swedish pop group ABBA performs the song "Waterloo" during the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton on Feb. 9, 1974.Olle Lindeborg—Getty Images

2024 is the 50th anniversary of ABBA’s Eurovision win

The pop supergroup represented Sweden in 1974 and performed the song “Waterloo.” It was the first time Sweden won the contest, according to the Eurovision website. ABBA went on to enjoy widespread international success, with their songs immortalized in the popular musical Mamma Mia! and the accompanying films.

Olivia Newton-John also competed at Eurovision

Also in 1974, the singer known for her role as Sandy in Grease represented the U.K. at the international singing competition, according to the Eurovision website. She performed the song “Long Live Love,” placing fourth overall.

Read More: Eurovision Organizers Reprimand Performers for Wearing Pro-Palestinian Symbols

Celine Dion won Eurovision in 1988

The Canadian singer represented Switzerland in 1988, according to Associated Press. Dion competed with the song “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.” She’s another example of a Eurovision winner who went on to become a huge success in North America, Vuletic says.

It “may sound strange because, you know, we talk about artists representing their own countries in Eurovision; that’s what usually happens,” Vuletic tells TIME. “But there is actually no rule requiring an artist to be a citizen of the country that it represents.”

A Eurovision song was the very first winner of the Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the inaugural Grammy Awards in 1959

Representing Italy, Domenico Modugno performed “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” at the 1958 Eurovision and placed third overall. The song has since been covered by renowned musicians like David Bowie and Paul McCartney, according to Reuters.

Winner of Grand Prix Eurovision 1988: Céline Dion,Winner of Grand Prix Eurovision 1988: Céline Dion
Céline Dion wins the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988. The Canadian singer represented Switzerland by singing "Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi."Sobli/RDB—Getty Images

Ireland and Sweden are the countries with the most wins

The two countries have each won Eurovision seven times, more than any other participating country, according to BBC. Cyprus, meanwhile, has entered the competition the most times with the least wins (they have yet to win).

Not all participating countries are in Europe

In order to participate in the contest, a country has to be an active member of the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes Eurovision, so eligibility is not solely dependent on geography. Australia, for instance, has participated in Eurovision since 2015.

Israel is also a regular participant in the competition—a decision that has sparked controversy this year among pro-Palestinian activists. In the days leading up to the 2024 final, Sweden increased security in Malmo in anticipation of protests. And on Thursday, thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators—among them, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg—marched through the city, Associated Press reported.

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