If this had been a baseball game, like the Little League World Series, the only other national event where middle schoolers command the spotlight, it would have headed to extra innings.
Following two strong contestants going toe-to-toe for 18 rounds that ended in a draw, Thursday’s Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in a first: a spell-off pitting 14-year-old Harini Logan and 12-year-old Vikram Raju.
The two had 90 seconds to spell as many words correctly as possible. Each contestant rattled off more than 18 spellings during the rapid-fire round, and judges had to consult the video to determine who had the most correct words.
Logan, whose incredible 21 correct spellings out of 25 in the lightning round has already launched memes across Twitter, emerged victorious in her fourth and final appearance at the bee. The San Antonio resident captured the title in a year of firsts for the popular event, which returned to a fully in-person format for the first time since 2019. The pandemic canceled the 2020 event, and last year the format was modified to account for COVID-19 protocols, with the first three rounds going virtual.
Raju, the runner-up, spelled 15 words correctly in the spell-off, answering a bit slower than Logan, who barely paused to breathe while confidently spelling words most viewers had probably never heard of.
It was, perhaps, a fitting finish to a Bee that had provided more drama than any in recent memory with two reinstatements during the finals. The lightning round seemed designed to cleanse the memory of 2019, when the three-hour event ended in an eight-way tie deemed a disappointment in a culture that likes to celebrate singular winners.
Over the past 20 years, the Bee has become an event on par with the greatest sports contests, with contestants making great leaps in concentration and comprehension.
They talk of spending six to 10 hours daily practicing their words, equivalent to the time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles spends in the gym. The intensity of the culture has inevitably led to a reexamination of whether this beloved pastime, an event held since 1925, has become too intense or too arcane.
After all, most people watching the Bee don’t know the words—a few of the late-round words included scyllarian (a crustacean), pyrrolidone (an organic compound) and myricetin (a flavonoid), not exactly terms that come up in daily conversation.
The pressure on the contestants was evident as the results of the spell-off were announced. Raju shook with emotion, and while he did say he’d be back for his final year of eligibility, the enormity of the moment clearly got to him. He is, after all, only 12.
This year also had more drama than usual. One speller was reinstated following an appeal after a semifinal elimination because he was not told relevant information about the root of a word he was spelling. And Logan herself was briefly eliminated during the round where spellers have to explain the definition of a word. The judges ruled during a commercial break that her answer, initially ruled incorrect, could be applied to a secondary meaning of the word.
The word meaning round returned this year seemingly to combat criticism that the Spelling Bee has become too focused on competition and not enough on the roots of the contest, which bills itself as an educational event.
If contestants are just spitting out letters, are they actually learning anything or just memorizing? Drawing lines between esoteric words and their meanings is one way to reinforce the stated aim of the bee, to “help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.”
Of course, like any contest in 2022, it’s not immune from criticism, and some of that hews closer to what’s said about sports these days—kids begin doing advanced things too early and feel too much pressure. In 2018, two 8-year-olds made it to the Bee, and in 2016, an 11-year-old won. While no course corrections seem on the horizon, it’s a lingering concern.
Despite the drama of this year’s event, it’s almost guaranteed to be the lowest-rated in recent history. After years of airing on ESPN, the Bee moved to Ion this year, a broadcaster with a wide footprint but generally low viewership. It also brought on a celebrity host, LeVar Burton, for the first time.