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:

Year First Second Third
1997 Indian Indian
1998 Indian Indian
1999 Indian Indian
2000 Indian
2002 Indian
2003 Indian Indian
2004 Indian
2005 Indian Indian Indian

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.

Year First Second Third
2003 Indian
2005 Indian
2006 Indian Indian Indian

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?

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8 Responses to Competition

  1. Anonymous says:

    the spelling bee actually requires quite a bit of thinking and extrapolation, as opposed to just sheer memorization … i.e. knowing various language’s roots and using other clues given in the beginning of each session to try and construct the correct spelling. apparently, a large percentage of the words these kids hear, they’ve never hear before. so they use the fact it’s latin, or its part of speech (and of course just general familiarity & experience with other words)to spell it correctly.

    • snafuuu says:


      Homer: Come on, you idiots! We’re taking back this town!
      Carl: Yeah! Let’s make litter out of these literati!
      Lenny: That’s too clever — you’re one of them! [punches Carl]

    • aj says:

      I think this is true to some extent, but I also think you might be overselling it a bit. Language of origin, sure. But, at least in the final rounds, most of the kids didn’t even ask these questions (to my surprise) — the ones who did appeared unsure and generally went on to misspell the word. The ones who spelled the quickest (i.e. with a minimum of questions) nearly always got it right. At the least, I remember that the second place girl claimed to have gone through the entire dictionary.

      Which is still a remarkable achievement, no doubt. And I guess my statement about “rote memorization” is too strong. But I’d say there’s more critical analysis in one “math competition” math problem than there are in many rounds of spelling.

      • ccho says:

        I think origins and sentences are good strategies to glean information about the spelling, hear the word again to eliminate any chance of not hearing it correctly, as well as to help calm the speller’s nerves. Probably the kids in the finals have already memorized most of the words, but I’m sure it is possible for someone who hasn’t to get lucky with that extra information about a word he doesn’t know. Ursprache is obviously German, but if the word was a little more ambiguous, the spelling could matter.

        Have you ever seen Spellbound (a documentary about National Spelling Bee)? The Indian kid was being forced by his dad to review >5k words per day. Good discipline and memory, but isn’t that similar to training a little kid to run a marathon?

        I think watching math competitions like MathCounts would not be as entertaining to watch. Math is also often dependent on calculation speed, which can be trained through repetition. Have you ever seen the documentary about the Japanese kids who can multiply a series of relatively large numbers by visualizing that they are using an abacus?

        • cychan says:

          Depends on the math competition. I think AJ was referring to those that test not calculation speed, but problem solving ability. Any test where you’re given 6 hours to solve 12 questions can’t possibly be about calculation speed.

          • ccho says:

            My off-topic comment was about the spelling bee being a spectator sport, whereas math competitions are not. Unfortunately my coworker is making it impossible to write a thorough response. :(

          • aj says:

            That was, to some extent, the point of my original post.
            “But at the same time, it was great television….”

        • “Have you ever seen Spellbound (a documentary about National Spelling Bee)? The Indian kid was being forced by his dad to review >5k words per day”

          yep, and to study french, latin, and german to ensure that he knows “all” the sources of english words… the word he is completely blanked by in the competition is “darjeeling”.