22 June 2016

Bee and Bowl European Championships

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On 28 May a young group of Upper and Middle School historians descended the steps of Berlin Tegel Airport, with the words of the great man Napoleon himself resonating in our minds, that ‘glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever’. Having won the London History Bee and Bowl competition, we had now arrived at the European championships of this history trivia competition.

Intrepid and flushed with excitement we set off on a whirlwind tour of the city, immersing ourselves in the history and culture present all around us – all of which seemed to reaffirm our purpose and common resolve. Visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe instilled a strong and emotional response in each and every one of us, whilst the stellae (blocks) together formed an eerie structure, supposedly to show how a modern, formerly rational and ordered system could be subverted to wreak unimaginable horror. The presence of both modern and medieval historians on the trip increased the gravity of the estimation that the holocaust was the equivalent of hundreds of years of medieval pogroms, which led us to question our inbuilt assumptions about human progress and ‘rationality’.

Soon afterwards we arrived at John F Kennedy School in Berlin, the site of the competition. After a quick briefing and introduction to a host of history teams hailing from different nations, such as Poland, Sweden and Germany, the competitions commenced. The questions were tense; designed to be unimaginably obscure at the beginning, with gradually more details being revealed until you realised, pressed the buzzer and answered. Whoever could answer eight total questions first won the round and could exit while the five preliminary rounds filtered around a quarter the players to compete in the final.

After a tense and contested final round, John Broomfield emerged third winning bronze and I came first, becoming European champion, and collectively we won a series of trophies and plaques. A tragic ruling dispute and a perhaps erroneous following decision from the adjudicator meant that John narrowly missed out on silver. The Middle Schoolers unfortunately missed out on their finals and Dan Wu narrowly missed qualifying for the final, preventing what would have been a strong showing.

Flushed with excitement and victory we roamed Berlin in its enchanting evening glow. Visiting the Reichstag, its perfectly preserved glory was awe-inspiring, making our classroom experiences finally come to life. However after our stomachs started rumbling, we found a quaint little café where we immediately tucked into schnitzel, bratwurst and chips. We then retired to the hotel, fired up and ready to go for the next day.

The History Bowl (team competition) commenced early morning the next day. From the very first competition, we steamrolled all opposition easily doubling our opponents points for most games. Dan Wu was especially quick on the buzzer, John Broomfield formidable on the Middle Ages and I strong in US history. This continued throughout the first five preliminary rounds where, despite one close shave we emerged the first seeded team ready to continue our streak of success into the quarter-finals.

We, the first seeded team were up against the eighth seeded team, a win that everyone (including us, had taken for granted). Although we held a strong consistent lead throughout the early stages of this round, it largely withered away during the third section as the tension and pressure began to build. Then suddenly in the last round, it gave way. Buzzing too early on the basis of half-formed thoughts and ideas, we allowed easy questions to escape us and right into the opponents grasp. In our rush to close the gap and beat our opponents, we often pre-empted our own team members who would know the answer but be patiently waiting in order to make sure. In this way by the very final question we had a draw.

The tiebreaker question was especially obscure, a music question (our weakest area) culminating in a revelation that the question sought a low-pitch wind instrument. Thinking low-pitch I buzzed and made an informed guess of oboe. This was wrong as it turned out, preventing us from buzzing again. A girl on the opposing team, who had yet to contribute, suddenly buzzed guessing, ‘Flute’. She was right, and we lost. We looked at each other, stunned and speechless whilst the quizmaster muttered, ‘Wow’ bemusedly, ‘Just wow’, as we were eliminated from the competition that just 20 minutes ago, seemed ours for the taking. Looking back, despite our individual strengths, our lack of teamwork, specialisation and general disinterest in anything music related proved our undoing. It was a humbling defeat by an underdog team that inspired us by their teamwork, effective communication and hope. There was a ray of light however, in that the Middle-Schoolers had successfully reached semi-finalist positions in their own competitions, taking home plaques in the process.

Meanwhile we took consolation in the lessons to be learnt, as Dan suddenly recalled an old Confucius saying: ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall’. Inspired we returned home, with a broad array of prizes but gaining the gift of humility, insight and becoming wiser in the process.

Thank you to Dr Yuravlivker and Dr Oterro for such an incredible opportunity, for cheering us on and giving us moral support and educating us about our historic surroundings.

Ishaan Bhardwaj

Competitors: John Broomfield, Daniel Wu, Ishaan Bhardwaj, Dom Gualtieri, Spiros Giovas, Barty Wardell 

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