Indian American children's domination of the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee could be put down to their perseverance, the competition's director has said while slamming the racist backlash against the winners of Indian-origin.
Indian-American kids have placed a stranglehold on the Scripps National Spelling Bee, winning it now for seven years in a row and all but four of the last 15 years. Indian-Americans account for just under 1 per cent of the US population, but make up more than a fifth of the 285 spellers competing this week in the 88th edition of the bee, beginning on Tuesday.
If recent trends hold, they would account for more than a third of the contest's 50 semifinalists. The winning streak of Indian-Americans is as impressive as it is difficult to explain. It is much the same way that Kenyan runners have owned the Boston Marathon.
The streak has been much discussed and analysed in recent years except by the people who actually run the bee. For the first time, Paige Kimble, the bee's longtime director, agreed last week to address the sensitive question of why Indian-Americans have come to dominate the contest.
The difference for Indian Americans may be a commitment to pursue the spelling championship over many years, she said. "How hard a child works is a very individual factor," said Kimble, who won the national bee in 1981.
"But what might be happening (with Indian American contestants) is that there might be perseverance for the National Spelling Bee goal over a longer period of time," she was quoted as saying by the Washington Post.
Indeed, of the Indian-American champions over the past 15 years, only one, Pratyush Buddiga, won on a first trip to the national bee in 2002. The others won after multiple trips, including last year's co-champ, Sriram Hathwar, who made it to the national bee five times before winning, and Kavya Shivashankar in 2009 and Sameer Mishra in 2008, who both won on their fourth trips.
Kimble and other bee organisers were appalled by the reaction to last year's contest, when Sriram, then 14, and his co-winner Ansun Sujoe, then 13, were greeted with a barrage of racist comments on Facebook and Twitter.
"We certainly followed the coverage last year and we are aware of Twitter posts that are not nice, that indicate that we have a long way to go as a country in embracing all of our immigrant population," Kimble said.
Despite the backlash, for Indian Americans the growing spelling dynasty has become a source of great pride. Shankar points out that immigrants from India, who are the parents and grandparents of today's spellers, are typically well-educated professionals and driven to succeed.
In a country where sports is king for many young people, Pratyush Buddiga, who won the national spelling bee in 2002, said the bee offered competition that coincided with academic goals set by Indian-American families.
Image: Ansun Sujoe (left) and Sriram Hathwar with the 2014 Spelling Bee trophy. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters