Six years ago in Rhodes, Tom Lovering and I started what has now become a strong tradition of preparing an unofficial report about maths competitions from the student perspective. It seems appropriate to attempt to continue this in my new role as the Deputy Leader of this year’s UK team at the IMO. And since I have excellent wifi and a (just about) active maths blog, there seems no reason not to do this in real time, at least to a first approximation. I’m sure fans all around the world will be glued to their screens.
I should briefly explain what the IMO is. The acronym stands for International Mathematical Olympiad, and it is a competition held every year in July, welcoming school students from over 100 countries. Tempting though it is to picture a drawn-out global version of the ‘mathletics’ scene at the end of Mean Girls, the reality is somewhat different. Each country sends six students, who sit two 4.5 hour exams, each with three questions, in roughly increasing order of difficulty. It does however remain the case that you get jackets if you make the finals, admittedly with polyester rather than leather sleeves. Medals are awarded to roughly half of the participants.
Each team has a leader, who arrives early to help set the paper, and also assesses their team’s scripts, presenting their marks for approval by a board of co-ordinators supplied by the host country. Each team also has a deputy leader, who stays with the team initially, then joins the leader for this marking process.
As well as the competitive side, the olympiad is a great opportunity to meet other young mathematicians from all around the world. Certainly I am still in touch with many of the people I met when I was lucky enough to compete in Vietnam and Madrid (2007, 2008 respectively). As the competition moves country every year, it’s also a great chance to see some exciting places. This year it is in Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, after Buenos Aires in 2012.
Anyway, on with the report.
Sunday 14th July
I spend the morning packing up my room as I am moving to a new flat pretty much directly after this trip. Everything seems a lot clearer after sorting out the IMO team uniform which has arrived just in time leaving my floor essentially invisible under a sea of boxes. The mini-crisis wherein they were all delivered without my knowledge to the Worcester College kitchens seems but a distant memory…
We are flying at a painfully early hour tomorrow morning, so it makes sense to spend the night at an airport hotel. Courtesy of the satnav, I learn the hard way that there are three Holiday Inns at Heathrow. Geoff, Bev and I are the first to arrive, and wait for the students, two of whom are arriving directly from Copenhagen, bearing prizes and stories from the analogous physics competition just finished there. Parents are reassured that the occasional email and postcard will be sent and we retire in preparation for tomorrow’s Odyssey.
Monday 15th July
Up at 4.30am for the first leg over to Madrid. With time for little other than a quick espresso, straight onto the transatlantic flight to Bogota. The ten hours afford plenty of time to catch up on reading some papers. Had a think about how these results about (uniform) random forests might affect our thoughts about frozen percolation, and took advantage of the increasing tedium to do a long rate function calculation I’d been putting off for ages. I think the answer is – the question is somewhat more interesting…
Also relish the chance to spend several hours diving into Love in the Time of Cholera, having figured that this was almost certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore a Colombian novelist while in Colombia. So far, so good. In particular, much more interesting than One Hundred Years of Solitude, or perhaps my tastes have changed in the past few years?
We learn courtesy of Iberia that tuna, peach and olives do not make a good sandwich combination, and wonder whether they will be able to resist the temptation to follow every announcement with a synthesised rendition of the Concierto de Aranjuez. A slight delay changing at Bogota airport allows sufficient time for extra sushi and further progress through the example sheet solutions I’ve offered to before the short hop north to Santa Marta. Gabriel’s cynicism about the fate of our luggage turns out to be unfounded, but the two panama hats packed in my suitcase have not enjoyed the trip at all. The Santorini Hotel seems ill-prepared for a group arrival at 10.30pm, but eventually we obtain keys and pay. Shortly afterwards, we are able to unpay one of the bills that they have charged us twice within the space of five minutes. With everyone very grateful for the violent air conditioning, we head for much overdue sleep.
Tuesday 16th July
Up at dawn from the jetlag, but a useful moment to sort out the details for the first practice exam. This pre-IMO camp is a joint venture with the Australian team, and both sets of students are sitting an IMO style exam each morning. The villa we are occupying is somewhat sort on table space, but the three UK students perched on the kitchen bar with their scripts claim that it is fine. If IMO 2008 is anything to go by, where the desks for the competition were so steeply sloped that pens became more valuable as paperweights than as writing equipment, this might be useful practice.
While the students are getting on with the festivities, Bev and I explore various local food options, I study a couple of papers and explore the beach, though the humidity is rather cloying in the middle of the day. The UK team make confident noises about the exam, so I hope that marking the Q2 geometry won’t be too traumatic. Some complicated diagram dependencies render this hope in vain, but we finish up in time for a quick debrief before dinner. Meanwhile, the team have learned the hard way that Colombian plumbing does not hugely appreciate toilet paper…
Wednesday 17th July
I would normally struggle rather badly to find the motivation to go for a 7am run, but with a mile or so of relatively quiet beach on offer, it suddenly becomes a much more attractive proposition. As I return to the Santorini resort, the first waves of peddlers are arriving. One or two make a token attempt to sell me sunglasses, and a nice lady asks me how I got a particularly purple bruise, though I figure my Spanish is not sufficient to explain the idea of cricket right now.
Geoff bids us farewell and heads off to join the other team leaders at a top-secret location where they will begin the process of setting the paper. In theory it’s top-secret; in practice, it must be Barranquilla, the next city down the coast. The students power through another exam all morning, and pleasingly resist the temptation to make anything too complicated, so marking everything is relatively straightforward. Our stroll to dinner is accompanied by a small posse of feral dogs. I am reminded of the health guidance for this part of the world: “rabies is relatively low-risk, except for children, who are more likely to allow themselves to be licked in the face.”