VIENNA (AP) — For the first time in its 60-year history, the Eurovision Song Contest may be won by — Australia.
The land Down Under is making its debut in Europe's favorite songfest, 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 27 nations contesting the top spot Saturday after surviving the elimination rounds have at least a theoretical chance of walking away the winner.
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 the spotlight stays on this year's singers.
The Aussies are already stoked, or as Sebastian put it, "bitten by the Eurovision bug." Australian delegation head Paul Clarke attributed the huge interest among his countrymen in part to the country's "incredibly strong European presence."
Delayed TV broadcasts of Eurovision contests have been shown for 30 years in Australia and Eurovision parties are common there. This year it will be shown live in Australia's early morning hours, along with audiences elsewhere. Organizers expect a television audience of about 200 million to tune in globally to the spectacle taking place in Vienna's sprawling Stadthalle, which has been outfitted with the latest stage and light technology.
Huge public viewing screens have also been set up in key locations throughout the city for those brave enough to ignore Saturday's predicted cold and windy showers.
The winner will be decided by votes weighed equally between those from a jury and those called in by viewers. To eliminate the population advantages of larger nations, viewers cannot cast ballots for their own country.
The annual competition is supposed to be 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 Ukraine conflict, Russian contestant Polina Gagarina is raising some eyebrows with her pacifist-themed song, "A Million Voices."
And in Russia, where propagating homosexuality is against the law and many view Wurst as a threat to traditional family values, the Orthodox Church already is warning of the consequences should Gagarina win, since the winner's nation usually hosts the next year's contest.
Tass and other Russian news agencies quoted Patriarch Kirill as saying her victory would bring the contest to Russia "with all those bearded female singers." Acts such as Wurst's promote values "repulsive to our soul and our culture," he declared.
Despite such sentiments, millions saw Wurst's win last year as a triumph for tolerance. But it was not the first time Eurovision has pushed the boundaries of gender identity.
The 1998 winner was Israel's Dana International, who had male-to-female gender reassignment surgery before competing. Israel can participate due to its membership in the European Broadcasting Union, the event's organizer.
If Australia wins, the event will not go Down Under. The Aussies would be invited to compete next year but in a European country.
Even without a change of continents, contest horizons can be further widened this year with a triumph by Polish contestant Monika Kuszynska, who is partially paralyzed and performs from a wheelchair. But hopes of a breakthrough by the Finnish punk band PKN — consisting of one autistic member and three others with Downs Syndrome — were eliminated in a qualifying round.
That means Eurovision will rely this year on its usual mix of eclectic, sometimes vapid and often overwrought techno beats, love songs, ballads and pop tunes.
The Finnish band was taking it all in stride.
"We didn't make the finals," drummer Toni Valitalo told Finnish television. "But we won the whole contest."
Associated Press Writer Rod McGuirk contributed from Canberra, Australia