A Tale of Two Broadcasters: Remembering Eurovision 1987 in Brussels on Belgium’s National Holiday
Sandra Kim was the first, and remains the only, Belgian winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. Source: eurovision.tv.
Today is Belgium’s National Day, celebrating the inauguration of King Leopold I in 1831 which established the Kingdom of Belgium as an independent entity.
Belgium has brought no end of fantastic tunes to the Eurovision Song Contest, from Urban Trad’s 'Sanomi' in 2003 – famously one of the only Eurovision songs in an invented language – to Loic Nottet’s effortlessly cool electro number 'Rhythm Inside' in 2015.
Despite being present at all but three contests since 1956, Belgium has only won the contest once, in 1986. To celebrate Belgium’s national holiday, we’re looking back at this momentous occasion, and especially the difficulties which the country faced in hosting the contest the following year.
Belgium’s first winning song was 'J’aime la vie', sung by Sandra Kim. At the time of her Eurovision participation, 13-year-old Sandra was the youngest ever winner of the Eurovision Song Contest (indeed, the lyrics of her song falsely claim that she is 15, two years older than she actually was!) We recently saw her as part of Rotterdam’s Rock the Roof interval act at the 2021 contest.
An uptempo pop number with simple lyrics that celebrate being alive, 'J’aime la vie' charmed Europe and brought the contest to Belgium for the first time. However, regional divisions within the country meant that hosting Eurovision would not be a simple affair.
One Country, Two Broadcasters
For those not in the know, Belgium is one of a few countries which alternates between multiple broadcasters at Eurovision. This reflects the country’s linguistic and cultural diversity: Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF) represents the French-speaking Wallonia region, while Vlaamse Radio en Televisieomroeporganisatie (VRT) represents Flanders, where Flemish is the majority language.
In recent years, both broadcasters have selected popular and memorable acts at Eurovision. RTBF brought us Loic Nottet in 2015, Blanche in 2017 and Eliot in 2019, while VRT selected Laura Tesoro in 2016, Sennek in 2018 and Hooverphonic in both 2020 and 2021.
Sandra Kim, meanwhile, was selected by RTBF for the 1986 contest, being a French speaker from the city of Liège in Wallonia. The question thus arose: which broadcaster would host the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest? Would it be RTBF, who selected Sandra; or VRT, who was organising Belgium’s act at the 1987 contest?
In 1956, the two broadcasters had agreed that, in the event of a Belgian win, they would host the following year’s contest as a co-production. However, this was a matter of substantial regional pride, coloured by a history of division between Wallonia and Flanders. By the time the contest rolled around in 1987, it was hosted solely by RTBF at the Palais du Centenaire in Brussels.
Associate Professor Julie Kalman, a historian at Monash University here in Australia, has conducted the most detailed research into how cooperation between RTBF and VRT to host the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest fell apart.
In a 2019 article, she conducted a detailed analysis of the local news coverage surrounding Sandra Kim’s victory and subsequent preparations for the following year’s contest.
Her findings are summarised below.
Following Sandra’s win, Kalman notes that all of Belgium was overjoyed, demonstrating a unified sense of national pride. Newspaper La Dernière Heure stated that Sandra was “welcomed home like a princess”, while in the Dutch-language press, newspapers celebrated a win “for us, for Belgium, for Sandra”. This was an inclusive national celebration, rather than one defined by regional division.
However, Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws from the beginning described the potential for a coproduction the following year as a “tough and expensive job”, and even “condemned” it as an impossibility.
And so it was: the two broadcasters proved unable to agree even on a host city for the 1987 contest. In an article on 5 May 1987, Het Laatste Nieuws noted that bids to host the contest were received from venues in Brussels, Antwerp and from several casinos along the Belgian coastline. The most appropriate venue, according to that article, was determined to be a large theatre in Antwerp called the Stadsschouwburg.
Nonetheless, according to the same article, RTBF refused to budge from hosting the contest in Wallonia, first favouring Liège as the host city before switching to the capital city of Brussels (which, while separate from both Flanders and Wallonia, is primarily francophone) once it became clear Liège was not practical. After further negotiations, RTBF unilaterally announced the Palais du Centenaire in Brussels as the venue. VRT promptly withdrew from organising the contest, referring to it as a “song circus”.
As one might expect, the French-language press took quite a different perspective on events. Kalman describes coverage in Le Soir, in which the host city disputes were described as “squabbles” which had left RTBF alone to help viewers “get to know Belgium, and especially its French community.” Meanwhile, after the contest, coverage was led with the pointed headline “Logan won, and so did the RTBF!”
The potential for a unified Belgian event had effectively been squandered by infighting between the broadcasters. According to Kalman, this reflects broader trends in Belgian politics: over time, with increasing decentralisation and localisation of institutions such as broadcasters, it has been harder for the regions to find common ground.
She notes that Belgium has instead largely found national unity in pan-European identity markers, such as being home to the European Union’s major institutions – or, more relevantly for us, winning the Eurovision Song Contest.
In this respect, the outpouring of joy around Sandra Kim’s win shows the power of Eurovision in helping to bring diverse parts of a nation together.
A Belgian Eurovision?
Hosted by artist Viktor Laszlo, the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest eventually saw a record 22 countries participating in Brussels, making it the longest contest to date. After 1987, the EBU subsequently decided to cap the number of participants at 22, meaning that no new countries would join the contest until 1993.
The contest did not entirely avoid further regional disputes, with a minor controversy over the contest’s opening film, shot entirely in Wallonia. However, RTBF was careful to film the artist’s postcards across both Wallonia and Flanders, also incorporating Belgium’s proud tradition of bande dessinée, or cartooning.
Belgium, as the host country, came a respectable 11th place with 'Soldiers of Love', a fantastically 80's pop bop sung in Dutch by Lilianne St Pier (and not to be confused with Denmark’s boyband inspired 2016 entry!).
The winner, however, was Ireland’s Johnny Logan, who became the only artist ever to win the contest twice with the iconic 'Hold Me Now'. Germany and Italy followed up in second and third places respectively. Despite the challenges in cooperation, then, the 1987 song contest was a roaring success.
RTBF and VRT into the future
With Belgium sending many well-loved entries in recent years, it surely can’t be too long until we see them bring the Eurovision trophy home for a second time.
The question remains, however: would RTBF and VRT be able to cooperate to produce the contest if the opportunity arose again? Would the host city be in Wallonia or Flanders, or would Brussels now be seen as a more “neutral” option? Will Eurovision be able to bring the country together again the way Sandra Kim’s victory in 1986 did?
Belgium has shown great capability to host a successful contest, and as a centre of European culture and politics, would surely make a great host nation again in the future. The story of Sandra Kim’s victory and the subsequent disputes between RTBF and VRT are testament both to the capacity of Eurovision to interact with local disputes, but also to bring people together in celebration of music.
Here at Aussievision, we wish our Belgian readers a very happy national holiday. We hope to see Eurovision paying another visit to Belgium (whichever city is chosen) in the very near future.
Julie Kalman, “Which Belgium Won Eurovision? European Unity and Belgian Disunity” in Kalman, Wellings and Jacotine (eds) Eurovisions: Identity and the International Politics of the Eurovision Song Contest since 1956 (Palgrave MacMillan, Singapore 2019) at 73-90.