The Russian invasion of Ukraine followed up on years of conflict—the final fuse was the Russian government recognizing the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. When Russian troops executed their attack last month, it received wide backlash from across the world, along with solidarity with the Ukrainian people fighting for freedom.
Initially, the European Broadcasting Union stated that Russia, who hadn’t picked an act yet, would be allowed to compete in Eurovision 2022. This led to various broadcasters—not only the Ukrainian one, but also those across Europe—criticizing the EBU’s decision and the Finnish broadcaster even threatening to boycott. A day later, the EBU reversed course and banned the country from the contest, which resulted in Russia withdrawing their broadcasters indefinitely from the union.
This sequence of events showcased the EBU’s hesitancy to accept political headlines and to act accordingly. Even when they made the decision to show Russia the door, it was because them participating would “bring the contest into disrepute.”
This is not unlike with the Olympics—since the beginning of the modern-day games in 1896, the International Olympic Committee reinforces the belief that they should remain apolitical at all-times; the Olympic Charter states that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas’. While this has expanded to comments during press conferences, the IOC primarily focuses on the sports, rather than the countries involved.
Ironically, the original intent for Eurovision stemmed from political reasoning: after the atrocities of World War II, the contest was proposed not only to spread music from across the continent, but also to provide a space for the countries to collaborate and to advance innovations in television. Their subsequent actions attempted to bridge the gap between the two countries, though there have been times which the EBU put its foot down and didn’t allow for it.
Oppressed and oppressor:
In both ideals, the IOC and the EBU prioritize good relationships amongst the other countries within the competition, only giving window dressing to political issues. That said, when international pressure heads over to a breaking point, it’s enough for these organizations to take action.
Banning countries wasn’t new for both organizations–three weeks after Yugoslavia participated for the last time at Eurovision, the UN Security council passed Resolution 757, which placed sanctions on the country because of their invasion of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This not only ended Yugoslavia’s time in Eurovision, but also prevented any teams bearing the flag from competing in the Summer Olympics (though individual athletes could compete under the Olympic flag). When the war ended in 1995, the sanctions were lifted so the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia could compete in the 1996 games, but it would only be until 2004 when it returned to Eurovision as Serbia-Montenegro.
The IOC banned the losers of both world wars from the 1920 and 1948 Olympic Games, as well as North Korea from the 2018 Winter Games. However, the most notable was with South Africa, who didn’t participate in the Olympics between 1964 and 1992 because of the persistent apartheid regime.
Featuring massacres and segregated places for non-white South Africans, along with a lack of citizenship, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 1761, which “Strongly deprecates the continued and total disregard by the Government of South Africa of its obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and, furthermore, its determined aggravation of racial issues by enforcing measures of increasing ruthlessness involving violence and bloodshed”, and advocates for nation-states to boycott the nation. Alongside with the ban from the Olympics, the IOC expelled the South African Olympic Committee in 1970.
Recently, the EBU barred Belarus from competing since 2021, but not because of its repressive regime. It took a pro-government band Galasy ZMesta submitting two songs with lyrics mocking the protestors of Lukashenko’s regime. Using a similar line to Russia’s ban, the EBU expelled Belarus, because the lyrics would’ve endorsed the current government.
A Show in the Limelight:
With huge international events such as the Olympics and Eurovision, it’s used as an opportunity to showcase the country to the world. For the former, millions of dollars are frequently spent on bids to even host the Olympics, mostly for “consultants, event organizers, and travel related to hosting duties”. Once a city gets the opportunity to host the games, the city would spend up to $42 billion, with minimal returns in tourism, employment, and development.
The Olympic stage, once built, is not only for the athletes to showcase their craft, but also for the host nation to paint a flattering image of themselves in front of millions of viewers.
One of the most glaring ones was the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin. When the city was awarded to them it was in response to the Weimar Republic’s commitment to democracy. However, when Hitler took over in 1933, the Third Reich used the opportunity to showcase the Aryan ideal and to well up public support. To do so, they connected themselves to the Ancient Greeks through the Torch Relay from Olympia, Greece, which “amplified the potential for combining aesthetics with intense political messages”. The cancelled 1940 Olympics in Tokyo would’ve drawn on the same path, with focus on “the country’s spiritual uniqueness and leadership of Asia”.
On the flip side, the 1988 Olympic Games represented a South Korea opening itself to global influence; prior to that, its post-independence image focused on the Korean War and its dictatorship. While the ioc’s decision to have the city host the games there was more focused on “former president Park Chung-hee initiating the industrialisation of South Korea and its economy” South Korea also used the opportunity to show it developed alongside its neighbors, and commercialized its location. That said, the after-effects of the Olympiad made a splash—it not only added more pressure for the authoritarian government to reform, but also saw an explosion of Korean brands across the world, which persists today.
Eurovision also features displays of soft power, albeit on a smaller scale and with more gentle imagery. When Ukraine first hosted Eurovision in 2005, they used the motto “awakening”, referring to “a new international image in the context of democratization and new Europeanist aspirations”; their song, “Razom nas Bahato” was an adaptation of a song used during the Orange Revolution. Similarly, when Russia won the contest in 2008, they spent 30 million euros on the 2009 contest, which would be the most ever spent on the contest until Baku three years later. There, Russia tried to portray themselves as not only a resurgent power, but also as a welcoming, tolerant nation. That was foiled, though, when a pride march took place on the day of the grand finale and police broke it up.
Azerbaijan used Eurovision 2012 to put their country at the global forefront. Thanks to an oil boom, which allowed the Azeri economy to grow by an average of 15% between 2000 and 2010, Azerbaijan wanted to shake off the unknown country image the rest of the world had, and “investing in a festival that was glamorous and modern, presenting a nation brand of Azerbaijan as both modern and exotic through the ‘Land of Fire’ narrative.” Even with the construction of the glitzy Baku Crystal Hall, it hid the controversy involved; featuring illegal evictions of families living in the area, demolitions, and expropriations with minimal compensation. In addition, Azerbaijan sought to stifle dissent from their citizens, who used the spotlight to “ensure that the real situation in the country, behind the “glitz and glam” of Eurovision, was exposed.” They were punished in the year after the contest, and Azerbaijan still has severe restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
How to Preserve “Love Love, Peace Peace” in Uncertain Times
For better or worse, mega events form a stage for the countries to fight out their status as nation-states, which chip away at the apolitical ideals which the IOC and the EBU formulate for themselves. This has played out with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which received outrage from across the world, but it took days for both organizations to respond. For the former, it followed on the mild punishment following the Russian doping scandal, in which Russian athletes couldn’t compete under the Russian flag, but can compete either as neutrals or under the Russian Olympic Committee Flag.
With that in mind, what is the best way to go?
Banning problematic countries is a start, though historical examples indicate it’s a last resort for both organizations and came about from political pressure. Instead, like with the IOC relaxing Rule 50 to allow more showcases of activism for the 2021 Games in Tokyo, the ebu could do the same, though on a smaller scale in terms of issues.
In addition, political songs make their way in the Eurovision Song Contest regardless of the rules; making things more specific on what can be discussed can prevent wrangling on entries after the deadline.
However, the best course would be enforcing rules to ensure every country could compete, and do so equally. This involves taking a stand on certain issues, but would allow both the Olympics and Eurovision to live up to their ideals more sincerely.