If you can't name the world's most densely populated country, then you wouldn't have made it too far past the first round in the National Geographic Bee.
The nationwide contest got a new champion, Virginia eighth grader Akhil Rekulapelli, on Wednesday, after a dramatic competition hosted by television journalist Soledad O'Brien that featured just such puzzlers.
Each representing their home state, ten students flew through that first-round population question, by the way, moving on to the next round with barely a smile. The answer: Monaco.
The annual event held at National Geographic's Washington, D.C., headquarters peppers students with questions about mountain peaks and obscure national borders, one at a time until only one remains. Rekulapelli bested more than four million students, who originally competed in school-level bees across the U.S.
The competition on stage was formidable: nine other students, including three who previously had competed in the finals. After winning his school bee in Ashburn, Virginia, Rekulapelli advanced to both a regional and state geography bee before being invited to the national championship. Students who qualify between fourth and eighth grade come with their parents to demonstrate their mastery of maps and the world's many idiosyncrasies.
Mountains of Questions
The Geographic Bee works much like a spelling bee. This year's host, Soledad O'Brien, asked each student his or her own question. Every few rounds, several students were asked to leave the stage. The departures often come with visible heartbreak and emotion, the mountains of expectations from parents and teachers mixed with the disappointment of falling short.
Never mind that most people couldn't answer the type of obscure questions the Bee is known for. Far from simply quizzing about country capitals, the Bee's question writers often ask about the names and locations of rivers, deserts, and time zones—like this question from one of the preliminary rounds:
Hoover Dam is to the Colorado River as Atatürk Dam is to what?
The Euphrates River.
One of the most dramatic moments during the Bee came during an elimination tiebreaker. Three students were asked to estimate the diameter of the Earth at the equator—in miles. Eleven-year-old Ameya Mujumdar knew the exact answer: 7,926 miles.
But he couldn't beat Virginia's Rekulapelli, who answered every question correctly. Interviewed after the competition, Rekulapelli told National Geographic that he kept a strict long-distance study regimen with a coach in Florida.
"My coach gives me tips and tricks, like about what questions they'll ask and how to respond," Rekulapelli said. "Then I really try to get a good outlook on very big countries, like Canada and Spain. I also have to make sure I stay on top of the news, like by watching CNN and other channels, to make sure I know about changes."
As for what career a geography whiz kid is best suited for, Rekulapelli said he wants to one day go pre-med or study biology. At 13, he's already eying Stanford and University of Virginia.
The geography contest was created in 1989 in response to concern about a lack of geographic knowledge among American young people. Four years later, National Geographic created the World Geographic Bee to foster international competition. The ten finalists this year and next year will vie for spots on a three-person team that will represent the United States next year in Stockholm.
Rekulapelli's win comes with the enviable prize of a $50,000 college scholarship and a trip to the Galápagos with National Geographic's Lindblad Expeditions. Second place, for Florida's Mujumdar-who knew the Equator's exact dimensions—comes with $25,000. California's Tuvya Bergson-Michelson will take home $10,000.
Last year's winner, a Massachusetts 12-year-old named Sathwik Karnik, won by knowing the tallest mountain peak on Earth, when the Earth's bulge at the Equator is taken into consideration. Answer: Chimborazo.
This question this year that decided the championship: Oyala, a planned city located in the rainforest 65 miles east of Bata, is being built as a capital for which African country? If you're between fourth and eighth grade and would have answered Equatorial Guinea, you might have a shot next year.
The National Geographic Channel will air the final round of the Bee at 7 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday, May 22.