Turin, Italy — Eurovision Village comes to life. Ordinarily known as Parco del Valentino, this Eurovision Song Contest fan zone is now drawn to the festive mood and attracts hundreds of people from all over the world, adorned with the colorful flags of their home countries. One of those flags is everywhere. Ukrainian blue and yellow.
The event, which will draw 183 million viewers and play Saturday night finals, is a reminder that Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third month this year. While one of the competing nations is devastated by war, tournament organizers are challenged to host a televised party.
Among the 40 competing songs this year is “Stefania” from Ukraine by the Kalush Orchestra. It mixes traditional folk music with rap and is one of the favorites to win, in part because of public sympathy for Ukraine. They won the semifinals on Tuesday and advanced to the finals.
People travel from all over the world to attend the carnival-like atmosphere that comes with Eurovision, with competing countries across Europe and Australia. For many, there is a feeling that a victory for Ukraine is inevitable.
“It’s only natural for them to win this year,” said Nicklas Wikblad, 37, who has a marketing job in Stockholm and waving a Swedish flag outside a beer stall.
Wikblad was attending a contest with Grace Pan, 28, an American e-commerce resident based in Stockholm. Pan hoped to bring the best of both worlds with a powerful Swedish show. “If Sweden finishes second, we can co-host with Ukraine next year, which will be a good message for Eurovision,” she said.
Another fan flocking to town for the semifinals on Thursday was Bea Blanco, 30, a lab technician from Cordoba, Spain. She hung the Spanish flag and she thought Ukraine would win, but she was not thrilled with the idea, she said.
“The song is okay, but I don’t think it’s a winner’s song,” she said. When asked if it is right for a song to win based on emotion rather than strength, she said, “It’s not like that for me.
Gavin Williams, 32, a lawyer from Bristol, England, who was wearing Union Jack sunglasses with friends, sees Ukraine’s victory as a sign of the European Union. “I think it’s a good representation of the European community coming together to support Ukraine. If that happens, that’s a great result,” he said.
Each year, the winner is decided by aggregating the votes of a national jury of public and music experts from each participating country. The competition will be held in Turin this year as the Italian band Måneskin won last year.
If Ukraine wins, given the damage caused by the war, whether Ukraine can physically host the 2023 Games will be an obvious logistical issue. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which operates Eurovision, said in a statement to NBC News that it cannot speculate about Ukraine’s contingency plans for victory.
“Once a winner is decided on Saturday night, regardless of who the winner is, we’ll start reviewing that kind of decision next week,” they said.
Eurovision’s longtime powerhouse, Russia, was banned from competition by the EBU after it invaded Ukraine in late February.
The EBU has often attempted to walk the tightrope to keep competition apolitical, despite the fact that competing countries are sometimes involved in conflict.
Officially, the song should be apolitical, but Ukraine entered the contest in 2016 with a song about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Soviet troops in the 1940s. The song, released after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, has proven controversial, but the EBU has decided that it has not violated a political ban and went on to win the contest.
As with many other parts of the current conflict, Russia’s view of Eurovision will be significantly different from that of the rest of the world. Russians will not be able to watch the competition on TV as Russian stations that were EBU members withdrew after Russia was banned. EBU will not block online feeds for Russian viewers, the statement said.
So far, the show has muted direct support for Ukraine, but member of the Icelandic band Systur and Lithuanian contestant Monika Liu waved the Ukrainian flag in the green room as they advanced to the finals. Members of the Czech delegation also wore “no war” shirts behind the scenes.
Kalush Orchestra rapper Oleh Psiuk said to the crowd “Thank you for supporting Ukraine” after performing in the first semifinal on Tuesday.
The tournament’s three hosts, Laura Pausini, Alessandro Cattelan and Mika, avoided direct mention of the war, but appeared to be making an oblique comment on world divisions at the start of the show on Tuesday.
“Nothing brings people together like art and music. It is powerful and beautiful. And now we need it more than ever,” said Mika.
“Songs will come to help us with messages of freedom, love and peace,” Cattelan added.