National Spelling Bee drops perfection as
a prerequisite to entry
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[May 24, 2019]
By Barbara Goldberg
(Reuters) - The field of competitors in the
annual Scripps National Spelling Bee has nearly doubled in recent years,
thanks to a program that gives young prodigies an alternative route into
an event that has captivated many spell-check-dependent Americans.
The bee, which begins on Tuesday in an auditorium outside Washington and
ends on Thursday with a live telecast on ESPN, will test the spelling
mettle of a record 565 young people, age 7 to 15. It is the second year
in a row that the field has topped 500.
That compares with 291 spellers in 2017 and 280 in 2016, when the
competition was mostly limited to the champions of regional tournaments.
While a handful of regions have traditionally sent more than one
participant to the national contest, the new RSVBee program opens a door
for dozens of others. It allows students who were not outright champions
- those who won a school spelling bee, those who were a former national
finalist and others - to apply. Bee organizers make the final decision.
It is a question of fairness, said Valerie Miller, a spokeswomen for the
bee, which started in 1925.
"You might have just one speller who wins that region and advances, but
there are many spellers who are good enough to compete at nationals,"
said Miller. "There are just too many kids in that region."
But there is a catch: RSVBee spellers have to pay their own way to
Washington, including a $1,500 participation fee, which also covers two
tickets to a kickoff event and two tickets to an awards banquet. In
exchange, they get a shot at winning the grand prize of $50,000 this
Competitors who win regional competitions usually get a free ride,
courtesy of a sponsor, often a newspaper, service club or community
foundation, that covers the costs. But if local tournaments have no
regional sponsor, the RSVBee program gives them a chance to go to
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Regardless of their route to the event, past champions have said the
national contest triggered their competitive instinct, often stoked
by losses in previous bees. Successful participants must spend
countless hours memorizing esoteric words like "marocain," which the
2017 champion spelled correctly to take top prize of $40,000 that
year. (Marocain is a type of dress fabric of ribbed crepe.)
The same instinct has pushed many former bee participants through
Ivy League universities and top medical schools, and into successful
For proof of RSVBee's potential, look no further than last year's
champion - Karthik Nemmani, who made it to the 2018 nationals
through the program.
Nemmani, then 14, of McKinney, Texas, won first prize in May 2018 by
beating the same speller who defeated him at his countywide bee just
months earlier. That setback would normally have disqualified him
for the national bee, but RSVBee gave him another shot, as long as
he was able to pay for his trip.
In the event, he correctly spelled the word "koinonia," meaning "a
body of religious believers," and claimed the national crown.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty
and Susan Thomas)
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