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The two worlds of Eurovision


‘The ball is round, a game lasts 90 minutes, everything else is pure theory. Off we go!’ Thus begins the 1998 German movie, Run Lola Run. One might say something similar to introduce the Eurovision Song Contest: ‘The stage has lights, a song lasts three minutes, everything else is pure theory. Off we go!’

Hundreds of millions of people around the world tune in for Eurovision each year, making it one of the world’s most-watched non-sporting events. It’s a place where careers can be made, and has famously featured artists of the calibre of ABBA, Celine Dion and Olivia Newton-John.

It’s also often a celebration of the funny, the camp, and the bizarre. If, like me, you watched this year’s contest you might have seen everything from a man in a Windows95 t-shirt  running around the stage ‘pantsless’, to a face-off between a rap group and a folk act, to a gothic singer screaming while banishing the devil. Not to mention a succession of gorgeous pop idols, dancing divas, preening balladists, and rocking bands.

There are a few more rules for soccer, of course, and there are a few more rules for the Eurovision song contest (e.g. songs are performed live and you can’t have more than six people on the stage). But just like the painted boundaries that circumscribe the beautiful game, the limited parameters of Eurovision give space to an infinite variety of possibilities.

Having a decent song is only a small part of crafting a potential Eurovision winner. Theories about what makes for a ‘successful’ entry vary, and the formula seems to change each year. Singing in English is helpful – over the last 25 years there have been only four winning songs in non-English languages. But a general formula is that along with a catchy tune you need to have strong and soaring vocals, a memorable and original stage performance, and a story that captures people’s imaginations.

There’s an article I’ve been trying to write for a number of years that tries to imagine what the Olympics might be like if it was based around the arts instead of sports. More than just imagining the events – painting instead of cycling, sculpting instead of climbing, creating poetry instead of running marathons – I’m trying to imagine the sort of world that might give rise to an Arts Olympics. Instead of competitions to determine the fastest, highest and strongest, what if our greatest competitions sought out the most true, good and beautiful? Would it look something like Eurovision?

Perhaps, and perhaps not. The Olympic world that I’m trying to imagine in my article (which is still stuck in my ‘drafts’ folder) is one in which competition between humans from across the globe has given way to a relationship that’s deeper, more collaborative. The arts are not really about ‘who’s better’, and any attempt to measure one piece of art against another is only ever going to be shallow and subjective. What’s important in the Olympics I’m trying to imagine is that together participants are trying to elevate humanity, to explore the boundaries of our knowledge and experience and imagination, such that we might reach for something deeper together.


'Eurovision – with all its flaws – might be the best opportunity we’re going to get to celebrate the other side of humanity. Not humanity at its fastest, highest, and strongest, but at its most joyful, introspective and beautiful.'


Eurovision, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in that world. It takes place in a world overshadowed by politics and conflict; where Russia was banned from the competition after its invasion of Ukraine, and where many were calling for Israel to be similarly banned amidst their ongoing assault on the community in Gaza. Indeed, there were crowds of protesters outside this year’s event in Malmo, and many jeers and boos during the performance of the Israeli song. The ugliness spilled over online after the Netherlands competitor Joost Klein was disqualified from the competition after an alleged backstage incident. Social media erupted blaming the Israeli delegation for the incident – allegations that subsequently proved to be unfounded. It made for an ugly backdrop.

And yet, there’s still some fragments of truth, goodness and beauty to be found hidden amongst the mess. This year’s winning song, ‘The Code’, was written by non-binary artist Nemo. The song shares their story of coming to terms with their gender by ‘breaking the code’, and includes the evocative lyrics, ‘Somewhere between the O’s and ones/That’s where I found my kingdom come’. The performance ticked all the boxes of a winning act – it was exhilarating, joyous and told a story that people could connect with. It might not have been a runaway winner (it came first in the jury vote, but only fifth in the public vote), but it was a powerful performance nonetheless.

Meanwhile, coming third in the contest was ‘Teresa & Maria’, a song from the Ukraine by Jerry Heil and alyona alyona. The song evokes Mother Teresa and the Virgin Mary, as examples of holiness to which all people might aspire. The two women wrote it to celebrate the strength of women in the midst of war in their country, and in memory of those ‘holy people’ who had lost their lives in the conflict.

Where else might someone see two such opposite, yet human, experiences be celebrated?

In the aftermath of this year’s mess, many are wondering whether Eurovision has a future. It certainly has its detractors – from progressives who bristle at the participation of countries accused of human rights abuses, to conservatives turned off by its open celebration of queer culture. But until we’re in a world where an ‘Arts Olympics’ is more than a few ideas on a page, Eurovision – with all its flaws – might be the best opportunity we’re going to get to celebrate the other side of humanity. Not humanity at its fastest, highest, and strongest, but at its most joyful, introspective and beautiful.




Michael McVeigh is Head of Publishing and Digital Content at Jesuit Communications, publishers of Eureka Street.

Main image: Alyona Alyona and Jerry Heil from Ukraine enter the stage during the opening ceremony of The Eurovision Song Contest 2024 Grand Final at Malmö Arena on May 11, 2024 in Malmo, Sweden. (Photo by Martin Sylvest Andersen/Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, Eurovision, Politics, Europe



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Existing comments

Careful, Michael, your gentle streak is showing! The Eurovision Song Contest this year seemed to be dominated by political concerns which perhaps should be set aside for such an exuberant and vital occasion. I like your idea about the Arts Olympics and I hope your vision emerges strong and true from your ‘draft’ folder. The arts are not primarily about competition but about creative spirits. There is a highly individual aspect to the arts which paradoxically speaks to community. Just the ticket for humanity to celebrate.

Pam | 16 May 2024  

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