The Scripps National Spelling Bee is simultaneously the closest and the farthest thing we have from the Hunger Games.
Thursday's night bee, the 87th, showed a number of similarities between the two: All the participants are young. They have honed a particular set of skills very carefully in training. If you prevail, you get fame and fortune and your face on a large banner. If you lose, the cannon bell sounds. There are sponsors and a lot of district pride. We are mere years from the introduction of wardrobe consultants and special glass tubes through which competitors are shot into the arena. Already, it takes place in the Gaylord National Resort, an artificial environment if ever there was one - a fake town square and indoor trees, all under a protective dome. Maybe soon we'll be able to send rogue silent K's to contestants who need them.
And the sponsors! Microsoft was there with "B is for Bing" signs strategically placed. One of the videos of the tributes - er, spellers - included the information that his hero was Bill Gates, which was, I'm sure, completely true but can't have hurt the sponsor's feelings any.
Twenty-one minutes in, we had broken twice for commercials. On TV, there had been one "sideline interview" and one canned segment about how a speller was inspired by Lebron James. Another video segment: "Rules of the Spelling Bee." "Isn't that the truth, Chris! There are strict rules at the bee," the sideline reporter intoned, introducing yet another video, this one of people on the Mall misspelling words. Then two contestants spelled words. Another canned segment. Another word or two. And some video of people spelling things correctly earlier. Guillemet. Collyrium. AND TOMORROW NIGHT THE NBA IS BACK ON ESPN! Commercial break!
This was clearly on ESPN. The spellers march in, accompanied by a flurry of sportscasterly attention, the spelling equivalent of, "Is your defense ready? Feeling limber?" It's proof that almost anything can be turned into a TV-ready blood sport, if you just place the cameras at the correct angle. This guy's the funny guy! This one's the dark horse! The spelling bee is a strange hybrid of staged and real. The room itself shows the divide - there's the large, color-fluctuating set with its honeycomb hexagons and the bee logo, turning a jaundiced yellow one moment, sunset peach the next, an ominous red when a speller nears the time limit.
But the rest of the room is full of the most enthusiastic parents and fellow spellers you could imagine. This is a competition that is also a community. Once a year, these kids meet others of their kind, and then ESPN tells them to fight to the death.
The audience fell in love with Ansun Sujoe, one of the final three spellers, when he got handed the word augenphilologie, which means "linguistics that misrepresents the realities of speech because of overemphasis on writing."After all, letters misrepresenting the reality of speech was a theme of the evening.
Ansun emitted exactly the response that you would emit after being handed a word like augenphilologie. Then, diving in, then halting over the last G-I-E, he nailed it. And the crowd went wild.
Whenever the spellers took the dictionary down a peg, the room went wild. Any time someone spelled a word right, the crowd clapped. Any time someone lost, they rose to their feet and emitted long, loud, apologetic applause. They genuinely wanted everyone to do well.
When Ansun and Sriram Hathwar became the last two standing, it became clear where the real battle lay. Their spelling was a thing of beauty. It was no longer a duel. It was a duet. Stichomythia. Feuilleton.
The words were the enemy. When bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly announced that if Ansun spelled the last word correctly, he and Sriram would be co-champs, the excitement was palpable. Two victors? Could this be? You kept waiting for an ominous sky-voice to announce, "There's been a rule change." The sports camera always wants a hunger games. But the kids weren't there to destroy each other. They were there to spell. "The competition was us against the dictionary, not us against each other," said Sriram.
When the bee announced its first co-champs in 52 years, it felt like a victory for community over competition. So much for blood sport. The dictionary lost. Fight the Capitol!
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.