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In Praise of the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s Octochamps

Eight brilliant tweens were just crowned winners in the most prestigious middle school spelling contest in America. Is it a problem if the kids have become too smart to ever miss?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The kids are getting too smart. For the fourth time in the past six years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee was unable to crown a single winner, running out of time, words, or patience before splitting the championship between multiple middle schoolers.

But even past ties couldn’t prepare the spelling world for what happened this week: Scripps named eight co-champions, each of whom spelled every single word asked of them in the competition correctly. Here are all eight co-champs—Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, and Rohan Raja—awkwardly attempting to share the trophy. (I particularly enjoyed watching little Abhijay, a 12-year-old from Texas and clearly the shortest of the eight, struggling to get a hand on the award.)

Awkward, although to be fair they’re all roughly 13. Everything 13-year-olds do is awkward, apparently except nailing the proper spelling of “erysipelas” and “aiguillette” with ease.

Just a few years ago, the Scripps National Spelling Bee ending in a tie felt novel. In 2014, Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar were named co-champs, but that seemed like little more than a rare matchup between two equally matched little geniuses. Sujoe misspelled the 16th word of the final round (antigropelos), giving Hathwar the chance to win by spelling his next word (corpsbruder) correctly. But Hathwar missed, and the pair got everything else until the Bee ran out of “championship words.” It was the Bee’s first tie since 1962. It felt like an epic battle in which neither competitor could be bested, like if Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had weighed 95 pounds tops.

In 2015, though, neither Vanya Shivashankar nor Gokul Venkatachalam missed a word from the championship list, resulting in Scripps having back-to-back co-champions. In 2016, Scripps vowed to make the words more difficult—a tough ask, considering the 2015 winners had nailed gnathostome, pyrrhuloxia, pipsissewa, and sprachgefühl down the stretch. This worked: Jairam Hathwar (Sriram’s brother!) missed drahthaar and mischsprache, while Nihar Janga missed ayacahuite and tetradrachm. But neither could eliminate the other, and Scripps had co-champs for a third straight competition.

After naming a third straight set of co-champions, the Bee instituted a written tiebreaker test. People hated it. It took too much time for already overworked tweens to complete, and there was no guarantee the test results would ever be used. Even if there were, the offscreen test could sap some of the drama from the televised finals. So this year that tiebreaker was axed.

And that resulted in the most ridiculous outcome yet: eight co-champions, each receiving the $50,000 winner’s prize. While past competitions have been able to winnow the field down to two, this year the final eight spellers could not be fooled, nailing the final 47 words of Thursday night. The Bee’s official rules had only accounted for the potential of a three-way tie, but as the night wore on the words just couldn’t get anybody out. Eventually, Bee organizers decided that anybody who spelled every word correctly through 20 rounds would be crowned a champion. I suspect time was a factor—the Bee had already stretched past midnight in Washington, D.C., and it feels cruel to keep 12- and 13-year-olds spelling until they pass out. I suspect TV programming was a factor, too—Thursday night was also Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which is a much bigger deal for ESPN than the Spelling Bee. If the two-hour Bee would have turned into a four-plus-hour marathon, fans turning to ESPN to find postgame coverage would’ve instead found pimply nerds. (And not even on one of those shows where sports journalists yell at each other.) The final eight contestants nailed the final 47 words of the night, completing five straight perfect rounds.

It’s clear to me the Bee needs one of two things: dumber kids or harder words. My vote is for the first one. I think we should hold a new spelling bee just for kids who haven’t studied at all. Same words. I just want to see the face of a non-little genius when this word pops up:

However, Bee experts seem to think harder words are a better solution. Past champion Venkatachalam told The Atlantic that this year’s championship words were pretty basic (at least for spelling experts) and included several words that had come up in past Bees. The founder of the South Asian Spelling Bee also criticized Scripps’ difficulty level, pointing out that his event hasn’t had the same issues eliminating spellers. (Considering every Scripps winner from 2007 through last year had been of Indian American descent, my instinct is that the South Asian Spelling Bee is probably a good spelling bee.) But it also feels like we’ve passed a tipping point for spelling smartness. Spelling isn’t impossible. There are codes to be cracked. It’s not that these kids instinctively know every word off the top of their heads; it’s that they memorize foreign orthographies and roots and piece together the puzzle in their head. There isn’t just one super-smart kid causing trouble for Scripps—year after year, multiple kids are proving to be smart and well-trained enough to never miss.

The Bee seems to think its multiple-winner situation is a problem. I get it: Scripps is a newspaper company in 2019, and just handed out $400,000 in prizes to oversmart tweens. It’s probably now ensuring that an eight-way tie never happens again. I suspect next year’s Bee will end with pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly isolating the winners in a glass box, throwing in a single sharpened stick, and walking away without saying a word.

Of course, a spelling bee without oversmart tweens would suck. I don’t watch the Bee to see any particular winner. I watch because the Bee feels like magic. Yes, I know there’s an explanation for what the magician is doing, but I still stand up and clap when the rabbit gets pulled out of the hat. In this case, the thing being pulled out of a hat is the correct spelling of “uintjie.” And now, more middle schoolers than ever are capable of pulling off that trick. I’ve enjoyed watching one kid win, but it was somehow even more stunning to see eight kids so well-versed in the obscure depths of spelling that none could be bested.