CINCINNATI, Ohio – After months of narrowing the field of participants, the nation’s capital is bracing for a heated contest with plenty of prestige on the line. One thing is certain – Bob Dole is too old to win. Then again, so is Bill Clinton.That’s because to be among the 247 contestants who will descend on Washington for the 69th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, you must be under 16 years of age.The quest to become America’s top young speller began earlier this school year for 9 million students. The remaining spellers, who won local and regional competitions, will vie to become national champion after a two-day competition on May 29 and 30. The spellers are as diverse as American society. Females comprise 51 percent of the participants. Roughly one-fourth attend a private or parochial school, and 12 are schooled at home – up from eight in 1995.A majority of the spellers at this year’s Bee are seventh and eighth graders between 12 and 14 years of age, but 12 are as young as 10 years old, and three of them are in the fourth grade. All 247 spellers are well prepared for the Bee, but a few have the added advantage of experience. Amanda Burke of Gate City, Va., is back for her fifth consecutive national championship. Evan Hulka of Hillsborough, Calif., and Wendy Guey of West Palm Beach, Fla., (who is only a 12-year-old seventh grader) are making their fourth appearances at the Washington finals. They are joined in the field by six third-time repeaters and 33 second-timers. Among the third-year contestants is Corrie Loeffler, who last year improved to a sixth-place finish from 44th in 1994. She has a brother who competed in the 1990 finals and her mother was part of the team that won last year’s “Parents of Champions” Spelling Bee. Corrie is joined by 19 other spellers who have at least one sibling or parent who competed in a previous Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.For most of the participants, spelling is just one of many areas in which they excel. Courtney Lynn Olson is no exception. The sixth grader from Pearisburg, Va., has played on the U.S. Chess team in the World Youth Chess Championships in Hungary and Spain. She currently is the nation’s highest-ranked 12-and-under female chess player.To win the championship, the spellers must overcome many obstacles – most of which are multi-syllabic tongue twisters. But for 11-year-old Jimmy McCarthy, the Bee’s first-ever hearing-impaired participant, overcoming obstacles is second nature. The Land O’Lakes, Fla., sixth grader will bring to the Bee the same enthusiasm that helps him be a competitive athlete at Pineview Middle School. Although the competition lasts just two days, spellers are assembled for nearly a week, beginning with an ice cream social on Sunday, May 26, and culminating with a farewell party on Friday, May 31.In between, participants are treated to a barbecue picnic, a spelling bee for their parents, a beach party, an awards banquet, and tours of 12 historic sites in the Washington/Baltimore area.The main event, the actual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, will be held in the Independence Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt at 11th and “H” Streets NW in Washington. The competition begins Wednesday, May 29, at 8 a.m. Thursday’s rounds begin at 10 a.m. Seating is free to the public and is available on a first-come, first-served basis.The Bee is a media event suited to Washington in a presidential election year. All of the 247 spellers are sponsored by a local media outlet, and correspondents cover the closing rounds for international audiences. English-language newspapers in Mexico, Germany and Saudi Arabia send spellers to the finals. Two popular cable channels will bring the proceedings into American living rooms. ESPN2 will carry the final rounds live beginning at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 30. CNBC will air a televised special on the Bee from 8-9 p.m. on three consecutive nights, Friday, May 31, through Sunday June 2.Newspapers do not have to be affiliated with Scripps Howard to sponsor a speller. In fact, only 15 of the 247 contestants represent a Scripps Howard newspaper.Scripps Howard, which has run the National Spelling Bee since 1941, also supports literacy education through grants awarded by the Scripps Howard Foundation.