Australia Competing for the Eurovision Crown? Howzat!

Guy Sebastian

For the first time in its 60-year history, the Eurovision Song Contest may be won by -- Australia.

The land from Down Under is making its debut in Europe's favorite song fest, invited as a wild card due to its strong fan base. Its entry, Guy Sebastian, is one of the bookmakers' favorites.

Sebastian is touted as being among the top five contestants along with entries from Sweden, Italy, Russia and Estonia. But all 20 nations contesting the top spot Saturday after surviving elimination rounds have at least a theoretical chance of walking away the winner.

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Still, Australia's participation is this year's buzz at the extravaganza, which catapulted into world consciousness last year with the win of bearded Austrian diva Conchita Wurst. A co-host in this year's competition, she has opted for a small role, so as not to turn the spotlight away from the singers.

The Aussies are already stoked up. Just days ahead of the event, Sebastian spoke of being "bitten by the Eurovision bug." Australian delegation head Paul Clarke attributed the huge interest among his countrymen in part to the "incredibly strong European presence" in what is essentially a land of migrants, or their descendants.

Delayed TV broadcasts of Eurovision have been shown for 30 years in Australia. Eurovision parties are common Down Under and the contest was watched by an Australian audience of more than 3 million last year. This year it will be shown there live in the early morning hours - and like citizens of other nations vying for the win, Australians can vote for their candidate.

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But Europeans also will be watching - and voting. Organizers expect a television audience of about 200 million to tune in globally to the event in Vienna's sprawling Stadthalle, which has been outfitted with the latest stage and light technology.

For those not in the audience, huge public viewing screens have been set up in key locations throughout the city. But most Austrians will likely follow the show from home - the forecast for Saturday is cold and windy with showers.

The annual competition is supposed to be completely removed from politics, and fittingly, this year's theme is "Building Bridges." Even so, the Ukraine crisis is making its presence felt.

Kiev is not sending a candidate this year. With many in the West viewing Moscow as the aggressor in the conflict, Russian contestant Polina Gagarina is raising some eyebrows with her pacifist-themed song, "A Million Voices."

While Wurst's win last year was seen as a triumph for tolerance, it was not the first time the event has pushed the boundaries of gender identity. The 1998 winner was Israel's Dana International, who had male-to-female gender reassignment surgery several years before competing. Israel can participate due to its membership in the European Broadcasting Union, the event's organizer.

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But horizons are unlikely to be widened this year, beyond a possible Australian win. Finnish hopefuls PKN -- a punk band consisting of an autistic member and three others with Downs Syndrome -- were eliminated in a qualifying round.

Beyond ending a chance for a global platform for artists with disabilities, their exit means the contest will rely on its usual mix of sometimes vapid techno, love songs, ballads and pop tunes.

The band is taking it in stride.

"We didn't make the finals," drummer Toni Valitalo told Finnish television. "But we won the whole contest."


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