The new American idols: 'intellectual athletes'

Larry Elder

6/8/2006 12:05:00 AM - Larry Elder

"These aren't nerds, they are intellectual athletes. They're all incredibly likable kids that you're rooting for."

So spoke ABC's executive vice president for alternative programming, Andrea Wong, on the network's decision to air the finals of the 79th Scripps National Spelling Bee -- in prime time. The kids received the "American Idol" treatment, with hair and makeup handled by professional stylists. The show included interviews with the contestants, reaction shots of parents and background pieces on some of the finalists. How soon before contestants show up with their own agents and publicists? How long before one of them drops out of the eighth grade to "turn pro"?

Seriously, while the spelling bee enjoyed less than eye-popping ratings -- tying for third place -- the broadcast rose steadily in the ratings as the evening went on. By the last half-hour, more than 9.1 million viewers were tuned in. Pretty impressive.

Each year, the spelling bee grows in popularity. A documentary released in 2002, "Spellbound," did well at the box office. Also, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett recently starred in a film called "Akeelah and the Bee," about an inner-city girl who enters and wins the National Spelling Bee.

The National Spelling Bee, despite its name, actually accepts entrants from any country. The 1998 winner, Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica, became the first non-American to win. The current director of the bee, Paige Kimball (also the 1981 spelling bee national champion), spoke of the bee's ethnic diversity: "We've had somewhat of a streak of children of south Asian heritage winning. The bee is important to individuals of that ethnicity. I think that's clear. They have their own parallel program through an organization called the North South Foundation. So many of these children of Indian heritage also participate in that program, too."

This year's national competition began with 275 kids. They ranged in age from one 9-year-old to two 15-year-olds in fourth to eighth grade. There were 139 (50.5 percent) boys, and 136 (49.5 percent) girls.

Katharine Close, an eighth-grader from New Jersey, won this year's contest. "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts, the host of the national telecast, made much of the fact that a girl won this year's contest. Roberts said, "Thirteen years old. The 'queen bee.' The first young woman to win the bee since 1999." The next day, on "Good Morning America": "Girl power! Girl power is back! . . . The first time since 1999 . . . ." NBC's "Today Show" reported, "The first girl to capture the crown since 1999 . . . ." The Los Angeles Times said, "[T]he first girl to win the event since 1999 . . . ."

Let's not turn this into a "Jackie Robinson breaking the barrier" story. For over the 79 years of the tournament, 42 bee champions have been girls, and 40 have been boys, including the three years (1950, 1957 and 1962) in which co-champions were declared. Interestingly, for a period of a few years during the '30s, the spelling bee crowned both a boy champion and a girl champion. So, for example, even if a boy finished in second, third or fourth place overall, if he beat all the other boys, he was declared the "boy champion." Ditto for the highest-scoring of the girls. They did away with that, arguing that emphasizing someone's gender de-emphasizes the achievement.

Today, more females enter college than men. And at many of our law, medical and business schools, student population approaches gender parity. Results on standardized tests show girls closing the gap with the boys in math and science. Even in golf, 16-year-old phenom Michelle Wie attempted to become the first woman to qualify for the men's U.S. Open. One little girl, whose dad brought her to watch Wie, said, "I think she's really tall and pretty and she's really good and she's the only one competing against all the men and that's very cool."

OK. But in spelling bees, the good news is that female champions are no longer news. Perhaps one intellectual athlete -- and finalist in the 2004 competition -- best summarizes the importance and purpose of the event. "The bee teaches you a lot about competition and life," said Akshay Buddiga, who infamously stepped up to the mic during '04's Round 6, received his word, fainted, got up and proceeded to spell the word correctly. "You don't always win, but you always have to work hard to get what you do win."

A good formula for success -- whether you're a boy or a girl. Very cool.