Sweden's Loreen Wins Colorful Eurovision Final, Outdistancing Russia and Serbia

11:09 PM PST 05/26/2012 by Eric J. Lyman

The lead up to the Azerbaijan-hosted gala was clouded by human rights protests, but quirky acts took center stage in the world's most-watched non-sporting event.

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – Swedish singer Loreen won the 57th Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday, easily outdistancing a field that included a Russian folk group made up of six dancing grandmothers and 1960s and '70s crooner Englebert Humperdink.

Television and online viewership estimates ranged from 100 million to as many as 160 million viewers, nearly twice the audience of the average Super Bowl. The event, which first starting pitting singers representing different countries against each other in 1955, is by some measures the world’s most-watched non-sporting event.

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Loreen won the title just days after angering local Azerbaijani authorities by meeting with civil rights activists protesting ahead of the gala event. Those protests and the resulting police crackdown somewhat marred the glitzy -- and often quirky and kitschy -- acts.

This year’s contest featured many superlatives: It was the farthest east the contest was ever held (because of the three time-zone difference between Baku and central Europe, the event got underway at midnight local time and lasted well into Sunday morning, so that it could take place during prime time in Europe). With 26 acts, the finals also featured the largest Eurovision field ever.

The camp quality Eurovision is known for was apparent in Baku. The French act, for example, featured topless male gymnasts rolling and jumping around stage during the song, while the Lithuanian singer came on stage with a blindfold that he tore off at one point while singing the lyrics “love is blind.” Ireland’s act featured two young singers dressed as robots dancing mechanically and jumping into a portable fountain at the end of their song. Fire blasted up from the stage during nearly half the acts.

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United Kingdom representative Humperdink, 76, best known for late 1960s No. 1 pop hits “Release me” and “The Last Waltz,” was the competition’s opening act, starting things off with a subdued ballad that did not go over well with voters -- he ended up finishing second to last. The Russian entry, which featured six traditionally dressed babushkas, or grandmothers, singing and dancing to a disco beat and concluding by pulling a sheet of cookies out of an oven put on stage with them, finished a distant second behind Loreen.

The final results are based on a 50-50 split between the decisions of a jury and electronic voting from television viewers, who cannot vote for their home country. Loreen garnered a near-record 372 points, compared to 259 for “Party for Everybody” from the Russian babushkas. Serbia was third with 214 points.

Eurovision has been a launching pad for some well-known groups, including the Swedish group Abba, which won Eurovision in 1974, and Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988.

With Loreen’s win with the song “Euphoria,” Sweden moved out of a tie with France and Luxembourg to win the contest six times, only one behind record holder Ireland. It was Sweden’s first win since 1999, and it means the event will be held in that country next year.

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The world economic malaise also left a cloud over the event. Host Azerbaijan, an oil- and gas-rich former Soviet republic, pulled out all the stops for its first-ever chance to host the event, directly and indirectly spending as much as a reported $1 billion, including the construction of a stunning new 26,000-seat venue called “Crystal Hall.” Constructed in just seven months, it was a major facelift to the country’s burgeoning and ambitious capital that included new roads and parking lots, new hotel openings, a clean up of existing structures, and an unveiling of a huge fleet of London-style taxi cabs.

But at least one country was not interested in following suit: news reports ahead of the event said that Spanish government officials said they hoped their country’s entry would not win because they did not have the money to host the contest next year. It turned out to be a moot point, as Spain, a dark horse contender according to bookmakers, finished 9th.

Azerbaijan saw Eurovision as a chance to call worldwide attention to itself, and it worked -- in good ways and bad. But the event took place the same day Baku was unanimously eliminated, along with Qatar capital Doha, from an even more ambitious goal: hosting the 2020 Olympics. The shortlist for that event was reduced to three, with Istanbul, Madrid, and Tokyo left as the remaining candidates. 

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