Spelling Bee’s 8-way tie is participation trophy culture at its worst

If you’re smart enough to spell erysipelas correctly, chances are you also are smart enough to know that an eight-way tie isn’t really winning. But the Scripps Montessori School, er, National Spelling Bee doesn’t think so highly of its competitors.

On Thursday night, after 23 final rounds, the hippie-dippy event’s organizers waved the white flag at 12:03 a.m. and announced that an octet of finalists would be crowned “co-champions” of the Bee.

Eight champions? What is this, a contest or Menudo?

The admirably brainy middle schoolers all posed for an adorable photo touching the trophy as if they were a team rather than individual competitors, and each person was awarded the full $50,000 prize. Why eight? According to the Bee’s announcer, they simply ran out of words to narrow down the field.

Wow. How remarkable that the kids made it through all 171,476 words of the Oxford English Dictionary and spelled each one perfectly. Considering that there are just 86,400 seconds in a day, it must’ve taken months to wade through the whole hardcover.

The thing is, they didn’t.

After 20 rounds, the announcer said, “We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super-spellers in the history of this competition.” Considering in past years, multiple contestants have crashed out on such softballs as segue, parity and ennui, his assertion seemed dubious.

No matter. After three additional rounds, everybody won anyway. The media naturally fell over themselves, calling the love-fest “extraordinary” and “unprecedented.” But in modern adolescence, everybody always wins. In 2015, a Virginia high school had 117 freakin’ valedictorians. At the Bee itself, it was even reportedly possible to buy your way into finals for $1,500 if you had misspelled a word in regionals.

Ties have also become more common. The tournament had its first co-victors since 1962 in 2014, and after that, three more years have ended in multiple champs: 2015, 2016 and now 2019.

It’s no wonder. American society is obsessed with treating kids like a bunch of Bichon Frises and teaching them that “Everyone’s a winner!” Winning, for many, is a meaningless, subjective decision, rather than an ironclad achievement. That’s old news. What’s new is how concurrently cutthroat the real world has become as we’ve rendered our youth forever-cherubs.

A few examples: There are more college grads on the hunt for high-paying jobs than at any other time in American history. The housing markets in cities like Denver, New York and San Francisco are increasingly vicious and tough to navigate. Getting your kid into a good school in Manhattan is like mediating the Oslo Accords. We don’t need to summon Charles Darwin in a seance to find out that life is competition.

And there are never eight winners.

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