This past Thursday I found myself watching the National Spelling Bee with my mom. I’ll admit I have a pretty low opinion of the Spelling Bee — rote memorization seems be a strange thing to glorify to such a degree. It’s like having a competition reeling off prime numbers.
But at the same time, it was great television (especially watching with my mom, who’s one of the all-time great rooters). There’s a lot of personality-reading to be done, as the kids aren’t trying to be composed, as in other competition shows (e.g. American Idol); they’re just trying to spell the words correctly. So you pick your favorites quickly, and root for them the whole time. Mine was the girl from Canada, who seemed genuinely nice.
And, of course, there is the satisfaction you get in observing anything, no matter how mundane, done well. And these kids are champs.
The one surprise this year was that the best Indian kid only finished fourth. Fourth may sound like an impressive feat, since Indians make up less than 1% of the US population. However, they have nevertheless exhibited an ethnic dominance of the Spelling Bee unrivaled in magnitude by any ethnicity in any other “intellectual” pursuit I know of. Recent results:
Perhaps the Spelling Bee’s lesser known cousin, the National Geographic Bee, is next in the sights of the great memorization armies streaming forth from the motherland. Things are picking up.
Unfortunately, these results are at best a source of amusement (especially when translated into articles like this one), furthering the conception that Indians excel at tedious, time-intensive, soul-crushing tasks; doing as well in, say, winning Nobel Prizes would be a little cooler.
Speaking of competition, I watched some track and field on TV this weekend. Of course, I have some appreciation as a former track runner myself (good enough, interestingly, to have been national champion in my event if I were a girl, but unfortunately not good enough to be the best guy runner at my school), and just observing their times and speed — and imagining how far back I’d be if I were in the race (either men’s or women’s) — makes me feel the jaw-dropping “holy-crap” kind of awe that I imagine pickup basketball players must get when they watch an NBA star.
But the really fascinating thing about track is that it is, unequivocally (to me), the single most competitive endeavor in the world. I can’t think of any other competition that’s as hotly contested.
Soccer is the only other truly world-wide sport, but I’m not convinced that even when I’m watching the World Cup, I’m watching the best game of soccer I could be, given the talent existing today. It likely suffers from some anti-Moneyball selection bias, since it’s so hard to evaluate how good players are and how well they’ll interact with each other. So it’s an inefficient market, and scouts and managers no doubt are making suboptimal decisions when selecting players. Similarly, intellectual competitions just have too many external variables to control for.
But track is based purely on an objective measure, time, so the best people have a great shot of making it through. Sure, not every fast runner in the world is identified, and not every runner who competes gets the best training, but on the whole I’m betting that of all competitions it has the highest percentage of the best people in the world operating at the highest levels. (Or maybe I’m forgetting something?) And that’s pretty cool. By watching track, you’re able to really see the true current limits of human achievement, in this respect at least. What else can you say that for?