ATHENS, Greece - There's a giant stadium, highly toned participants, intense rivalry and flag-waving fans from many nations.
It's not the Olympics: It's the Eurovision Song Contest, the annual kitsch extravaganza, known for its bland dance music and bubble-gum pop, that sees acts from 24 countries face off before tens of millions of television viewers.
But in a stunning upset for the contest that launched the Swedish group ABBA, a Finnish metal band with monster masks and apocalyptic lyrics won the contest late Saturday.
The band Lordi scandalized some of their compatriots when their song "Hard Rock Hallelujah" was chosen to represent the nation. At a press conference, the band's frontman said his plan for the final was to "scream louder. And turn the amps up."
"This is a victory for rock music ... and also a victory for open-mindedness," the band's lead singer, Mr. Lordi, said after the win - Finland's first. "We are not Satanists. We are not devil-worshippers. This is entertainment."
Combining crunchy guitars, a catchy chorus and mock-demonic imagery, Lordi is reminiscent of U.S. '70s stars KISS - an acknowledged inspiration of Mr. Lordi.
Band members never appear without their elaborate masks and makeup, and do not reveal their true names.
Lordi beat an unusually eclectic 24-nation field, which ranged from the perky pop of Danish teenager Sidsel Ben Semmane and Malta's Fabrizio Faniello to the balladry of Ireland's Brian Kennedy and the country-pop of Germany's Texas Lightning.
Regarded by many as the contest good taste forgot, Eurovision is adored by fans of camp everywhere.
"You don't imagine something so bad could be so good," said Carmela Pellegrino, an Australian who traveled to Athens from London to watch rehearsal ahead of Saturday's finale.
Since 1956, it has pitted European nations against one another in pursuit of pop music glory. Previous winners include '60s chanteuse Lulu, ABBA - victors in 1974 with "Waterloo" - and Canada's Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988.
Saturday's showdown was broadcast live in 38 countries to a TV audience estimated at 100 million. Some 13,000 fans packed the indoor arena used during the 2004 Olympic Games, from Goth supporters of Lordi to cowboy-hatted Germans supporting Texas Lightning. Some 3,000 police officers were on duty for the event.
NBC announced plans earlier this year to replicate the formula - a forerunner of "American Idol"-style talent contests - in the United States, with acts from different states competing for viewers' approval.
The European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision, said it was in talks with NBC over rights. If successful, the American version could go ahead as early as this fall, said the group's director of television, Bjorn Erichsen.
Athens staged the event because Greece won last year in Kiev, Ukraine.
Lordi received a trophy shaped like an ancient Greek column, and the show opened with a garish musical number inspired, organizers said, by Greece's rich history, mythology and sparkling seas. The hosts - Greek pop singer Sakis Rouvas and "Access Hollywood" correspondent Maria Menounous - made their entrance by "flying" onto the set, which resembled an ancient theater.
Some of the acts, like Switzerland's Six4One, stuck to the classic Eurovision formula of catchy tunes and blandly uplifting lyrics, singing, "If we all give a little, we can make this world a home for everyone."
Ireland's Brian Kennedy offered a syrupy ballad entitled "Every song is a cry for love," while Bosnia's Hari Mata Hari said it hoped to bring people together with the love song "Lejla."
Some acts were more daring: Latvia's Cosmos perform a cappella on "I Hear Your Heart." Others were optimistic: "We are the Winners," by Lithuania's LT United, consists largely of the lyrics "We are the winners of Eurovision."
Yet Eurovision victory is no guarantee of fame.
Dion and ABBA went on to glory - as did Olivia Newton John, who lost to ABBA while competing for Britain in 1974. Other winners have sunk without trace, victims of the "curse of Eurovision."
Many of this year's competitors are big stars in their home region but little known elsewhere. Swedish diva Carola - a previous winner, in 1991 - has sold millions of records, while Lithuania's Andrius Mamontovas has performed for crowds of 60,000 in his homeland.
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