IMO 2014 – Part One – Introduction and Arrival


The International Mathematical Olympiad 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, it actually revolves around two 4.5 hour exams, each with three questions from various areas in elementary pure mathematics. A handful of the ~500 contestants will make serious progress on the ‘hard’ question each day. Medals are then awarded to roughly half of the participants.

Each team has a leader, who arrives early to help set the papers, 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. This is the second year that I will be the UK deputy leader.

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. Last year we visited Santa Marta, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. My report on IMO 2013 starts here (or as a pdf without pictures here). This year we will be guests of the University of Cape Town in South Africa. As in recent years, the UK team arrives early to train with the Australian team, spending a week tackling practice papers and discussing problems of interest.

Anyway, on with the report.

Sunday 29th June

This year’s IMO delegation gathers at Heathrow Terminal 5. Freddie and I have booked a cab from Oxford, for ease of moving the boxes of team uniform, this year all lovingly adorned with the logo of our new sponsors, Oxford Asset Management. In any case, the M40 is unprecedentedly rapid and we are embarrassingly early. Fortunately, everyone else has also erred on the side of caution and we are able to saunter through security with plenty of time. My bag is pulled aside to be searched. I am asked to demonstrate the use of a tuning fork. I don’t know how this item ended up there, but I perform the task with relish. It’s been a long day, so opt for 220 rather than 440Hz. Worcester College Choir, starting a recording of contemporary Christmas carols today, will I’m sure vouch that this is preferable for the general public’s aural welfare. We learn that though some of the team lack virtuosic chopstick skills, they are unfussy, and able to make it to gate B35 without the slightest danger of passport loss. All bodes well for an excellent trip.

Monday 30th June

The flight proceeds smoothly. For complicated reasons I am registered on a different booking so am sitting slightly apart from Geoff, Jill and the team, so am not involved in the discussion of past IMO shortlist problems and unusual sleeping positions. Everyone seems fairly refreshed as we negotiate customs and are met by a small group with smiles and IMO 2014 welcome boards. Our journey through town affords glimpses of the contrast in wealth across Cape Town, but our guesthouse in Rondebosch is extremely pleasant, both for the inviting beds and its picturesque setting at the foot of Table Mountain. The Australians have arrived just before us; old friendships are renewed and new introductions made.

The Hussar Bistro at the corner of the street promises the best steaks in Cape Town from 2012, and the party of 22 dines for less than £70. Everything is indeed excellent, and comes with unprecedented volumes of creamed spinach. Feeling the need for exercise, the teams climb the 160-odd steps to the maths department at the University of Cape Town, past what is probably the most attractive campus facade in the world, before heading further uphill to the memorial to Cecil Rhodes, which in its neo-Grecian extravagance bears a noticeable resemblance to Rhodes House in Oxford. Undoubtedly a man who still divides opinion, but the views through the columns down towards the city, the distant mountains, and two oceans are stunning.

Dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant offers similarly remarkable value. My penance for joining an adults table is to be referred to as ‘the young man’ by all the staff. I regret asking for my Pad Thai to be hot. I can barely feel my lips. Lesson learned.

Tuesday 1st July

Yesterday’s balmy 23C conditions had lulled us towards a false sense of security. It is very much winter here, evinced by our walk through the darkness to start our first training exam at 8am up at the maths department. No-one takes advantage of the chance to ask silly questions. Perhaps they are saving it for the IMO proper? My mind gets on with some writing while my body recovers from last night’s chilli-induced trauma.

The UK team have made a promising start. The first question exposes their inexperience with undergraduate-level analysis, but there’s some particularly good stuff from Joe and Freddie on the hard second and third questions. We had planned a trip up Table Mountain, but the weather has turned, and with the prospect of gales and zero visibility, unsurprisingly the cable cars are not running. Instead Geoff and I wait at an imaginary bus stop, later transferring to the real version across the road, before getting down to some serious marking.

A debrief with the team follows, where outstanding arguments are praised, and questionable logic is ridiculed beside the pool. While it is easy to jest about such matters, at the actual IMO, the coordinators will not have much time to look at each script, so it is very much to the candidate’s advantage to make it as intelligible as possible. Later, perhaps in homage to Euler, the team develop a very strong attachment to Switzerland, and are thus gutted when Argentina score with 3 minutes left in extra time. They too have learned their lesson, and vow to reserve their energies for affairs of the mind.

Wednesday 2nd July

An early start for our second exam morning. Geoff says goodbye before he is whisked off to a mystery location to join the other leaders and start the important task of selecting from the shortlist of problems. This leaves time to transfer across the city to Tafelberg Road, and the cable car station serving Table Mountain. Even during this short and uneventful journey – standards of taxi driving are evidently much higher here than last year in Colombia – the weather turns, and the wires disappear shortly above the base into the thick cloud, known for obvious reasons as the ‘tablecloth’. As a result, the view from the summit is rather disappointing, reminiscent more of Victorian London than the glorious vista promised by the postcards.

At least there is a option of a bracing walk around the plateau. While it certainly isn’t precipitous, anyone coming up with an image of a pancake-flat summit is in for a surprise. The fetching and distinctive rugby shirts are useful for identifying the UK group wending their way between the rocks through the mist. The team discuss how close to the edge is too close to the edge. There is, after all, no injury that a pocket first aid kit cannot fix. Even on a cloudy day, one can still see the ‘dassies’ – essentially glorified rats (and slightly more suitable for representing as stuffed toys) that live on the plateau. Mike Clapper announces the implausible fact that they are most closely related to the African elephant and various eyes are rolled. Shortly afterwards we see several information boards announcing this same fact and the eyes are unrolled, though we do not in fact see any dassies.

In fact today’s South African wildlife experience is entirely gastronomic, as in the middle of an evening/night marking session I get a chance to try Kudu. Leaving aside my short-lived embarassment at having inadvertently asked for Kobo, this is excellent, with the game quality of venison but the rich tenderness of beef. Marking even Harvey’s elegant but mysteriously multi-coloured solution to the twisty Q2 is much more tolerable afterwards, and when I finish at 10.30 the team demand an instant debrief and discussion of the problems they want to set the Australians. I just hope this enthusiasm is not entirely a function of the rest day in Brazil…


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