IMO 2013 – Part Three: Opening Ceremony and Exams

Sunday 21st July

It turns out that the main entrance to the Hotel Irotama, the resort hosting the olympiad, is less than 100m from the entrance to the villas we’ve been staying. The jury remains out on whether that makes us the first team to arrive at an IMO on foot, not least because we are joined for this short but significant journey by the Australian and Israeli teams.

It’s another sticky and unpleasant day, but initial impressions are very favourable. The team have a pair of bungalows with dried leaves for roofs. Among other things, the air conditioning is working well! Lunch is available from beside the beach at a selection of restaurants, which have all been uniformised for the week. In any case, it is a pleasant reversal of the usual situation for the food to be high in quality and low in queueing time.

The UK students are immediately keen to meet other teams, starting with some of English-speaking countries, and moving on to the United States. The non-verbal school of interaction continues as a massive multi-national cross between water polo and rugby emerges in the pool, visible from my 11th floor balcony. The view across the bay as the sun sets are spectacular, even if the wind and the low railings do make me question the wisdom of the hammock strings above the jacuzzi?

Monday 22nd July

Today’s main event is the opening ceremony, which is being held in Barranquilla, near where the team leaders are currently based. The boards in the lobby advertise a sensible plan partitioning the teams into equal-sized classes alphabetically. We are bound for bus 20 with the USA and the enigmatic “others”, though disaster strikes when it transpires the buses provided are not equal in size. An appropriately weighted partition emerges organically, and we are on the move. The two-hour drive offers some views of the closest Colombia’s Caribbean can get to a rugged coastline and bustling towns offering a welcome contrast to the constant glossiness of the resorts.

The Opening Ceremony features the usual sequence of speeches, children’s choirs, and the procession of the teams. Barranquilla is Colombia’s fourth-largest city, and the economic centre of this region. The carnival held there annually is the most famous in South America outside of Rio. Even though that was six months ago, it is a nice touch to invite a selection of the dancers, acrobats and musicians to accompany each of the teams round the sports hall where the ceremony is taking place.

Other teams have extravagant rituals planned for their brief moment of limelight, but the UK students opt for a more reserved approach, apart from choosing at the last minute to hoist Sahl onto various shoulders. Having safely dismounted near the end of their circuit, they receive a bold thumbs-up from Geoff who is sitting in the leaders’ area, segregated on the other side of the arena. Whether this is a token of encouragement for tomorrow’s paper, or a show of delight in the minimalist choreography remains to be seen.

The festivities drag on a bit longer than planned, and after four hours hunger levels are becoming fractious. I don’t really want to know how long the turkey sandwiches had been slow-cooking in the sun, but for once it is convenient to have a solid component of vegetarians in the UK team. After an entire day of sitting around, I propose a brisk walk along the shore after dinner. We are prevented from leaving the Irotama’s portion of beach by a member of hotel security. I have a Deputy Leader’s badge. He has a gun. We make do with the view of the stars and the flotilla of ships lining up for the Panama Canal.

Tuesday 23rd July

It’s the first day of the competition and understandably the team are a bit nervous at breakfast. We follow the organisers’ instructions to the letter, and arrive almost an hour early at the exam hall, located at a similar hotel further down the road. After a final check of compasses and so forth, the team sally forth to their respective rooms, and the deputies return to the hotel and take a quick swim while waiting for some copies of the paper to materialise.

As the delay grows, the number of deputies waiting outside the office reaches what feels like a critical mass. It will transpire that some members of the Syrian team, who had been delayed by visa complications, have just arrived, and arrangements are being made for them to sit the paper before it is generally released. Ivan is able briefly to astonish onlookers by quoting instantly a solution to Q2, before revealing that it is in fact his question. We have about an hour to think about the problems before meeting the students.

The UK team are generally pleased with the paper, with five students claiming the first two questions, and some tentative offerings on the final question. We have a succession of more formal individual debriefs while walking back to the Irotama down the beach. Some of their arguments for Q1 sound rather more complicated than required, but hopefully it will all make sense when Geoff and I get to see the scripts. In the meanwhile, the UK students head to the pool, trying as much as possible to avoid comparisons with other teams and other non-helpful forms of post-mortem.

Wednesday 24th July

We allow ourselves the luxury of an extra 20 minutes at breakfast but along with many teams are still absurdly early for the second day’s exam. Today’s security is much tighter, and the deputies are not allowed into the conference building, so content ourselves with exchanging the national olympiad booklets and competing for the few patches of shade available from the baking morning sun.

Back at the resort, there is again no sign of the problems, so I use the freshly-unlocked Irotama wifi to sort out a very last-minute change of tenancy agreement and speak further with Colombian customs. Apparently the tax on a case of frisbees is 150,000 Pesos (a slightly less impressive sounding £50). My expectations remain low. It will transpire, however, that missing the official deputies excursion might have been a good idea. Reports are floating around of a 2 hour video and a bus tour with no actual stops.

After the paper we meet the team, who all seem very upbeat. Everyone claims solutions to Qs 4 and 5, with all but Warren resisting the temptation to deploy some form of co-ordinate method on the geometry. Andrew also claims Q6, so all in all everyone is rather pleased, and looking forward to an afternoon free to enjoy all that’s on offer at the competition site free now that the pressure is off.

Geoff joins us in time for dinner bearing the first day’s examination scripts and plenty of gossip about activities at the leaders’ site. However, our task for the evening is not a social one. The second day’s scripts arrive at about 8pm, and then we retire to devise our plan of attack. It makes sense to tackle three questions each, so I have a look through the Q5 scripts, and all seems fine, with the Q2 and Q6 answers to be addressed tomorrow. By comparison with the grapevine, it does look as if the UK might have done rather well indeed!

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