IMO 2014 – Part Two – Training Continues

Thursday 3rd July

Now that there is less compulsion to be rushing away, we decide to start the exam at the more civilised hour of 8.30am. Angelo, the Australian leader, decides it will be minimally confusing to set the giant clock in our exam room to start at 9am, as it would in the IMO proper. The UK team have spent some time over the past few days discussing when and whether various functions attain their minima, and I feel this may not be a good example. Anyhow, Q1 is found rather easy, Q2 is found very difficult, and only Gabriel has the courage to cut his losses and move on, and provides a beautiful proof of the combinatorial Q3. The prize for most effortless solution to the inequality goes to Frank. Warren wins the prize for geometry rough work closest to getting a pity mark, but does not in fact win a pity mark.

At least it makes grading rather straightforward, leaving time to accompany some of the UK and Australian team on a walk beyond the university up the side of Devil’s Peak. Jethro the hotel’s German Shepherd, described in the guidebook as ‘a teddy bear with boundary issues,’ has taken a strong liking to Joe, and seems reluctant to allow him to leave and roam loose on the mean streets of Rondenbosch. Once we’ve negotiated this amusing (to everyone else) hurdle, all goes smoothly, and the glowing pink sunset on the trek down is more than worth the energy expended. I make arrangements so that the team can watch France-Germany over dinner, and in fairness they are unfailingly polite in letting me know that the match is not in fact until tomorrow. I feel I am ill-qualified to choose toppings for a set of twelve takeaway pizzas, but am reassured by everyone that the decision to avoid Bacon and Banana is a wise one.

Friday 4th July

To introduce some novelty into the daily routine, today the UK team has chosen three questions for the Australians to attempt, and vice versa. They will then have to mark the solutions, and co-ordinate these marks with Andrew, the Australian deputy, and myself. The first round is straightforward enough, once we have found a room for the task that is not playing host to an angle grinder. The Brits have chosen questions which will be easy to mark, so perhaps they do not get as much out of the exercise as they might have done, but it is nonetheless useful to see how other people like to write up ideas, and also to feel what level of rigour is easiest to follow critically. There are more difficulties with the reciprocal arrangement, as the questions are more fiddly, or at least have more cases, and some of our students seem to have relished the opportunity to add elements of mystery to their solutions wherever possible.

Meanwhile it has been pouring with rain outside all afternoon. It is nice to learn from the ITV commentators that not only is it 35C in Rio but that the weather is also lovely all across Northern Europe. All is well though: we have tea.

Saturday 5th July

If this were the Ashes proper, the swing bowlers would be licking their lips in anticipation of starting soon after an early lunch. In the Mathematical Ashes, no such quarter is given to the weather, and both Australian and UK teams brave the pouring rain up the hill to start our final training exam on time. Of course, this exam has extra bite, as the results will be published on Joseph Myers’ website and to the winner will be the spoils. In this case, it’s a brass urn filled with the charred remains of some geometry circa 2008 from my second IMO in Madrid. As a sign of colonial arrogance, or perhaps because BA has an upper bound on baggage mass, we haven’t brought the trophy this year from UKMT towers in Leeds, so the team have the added pressure of avoiding an embarrassing and expensive (in postage terms) turnaround.

I’ve decided to rewrite Q2, which features a ‘crazy scientist’ investigating something which looks almost exactly in everything except name like a finite simple graph. It seems simpler to call it a finite simple graph, and give a name to the crazy scientist. In any case, I have to mark this question, and it turns out to be the deal-breaker, with beautiful solutions from Joe, Warren and Harvey taking the UK to 59 points to Australia’s 50, despite an outstanding 21/21 from AUS1 Alex Gunning. A small wager once again rides on how long will elapse between emailing Joseph Myers, and the result appearing on the BMOS website. Standards are slipping clearly, as the interval is greater than five minutes this year, though substantially less than ten. Rather than basking in their success, the UK team are keen to spend more time discussing esoteric Euclidean geometry. The hotel’s blackboard proclaims the proverb of the day as “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are,” but it seems that the over-arching thought for the day here is “no famous triangle centre lives on the inner Soddy circle.” Famous last words.

Sunday 6th July

The UK IMO delegation has a rich history of incompetence regarding accommodation, and it is reassuring to learn this morning that these traditions continue to flourish. Harvey and Frank learn the hard way that 15 minutes before check-out time is the maximally inconvenient time to lose your room key. I await with keen anticipation the email from reception telling us they found it down the back of someone else’s sofa. Today we are moving from our guesthouse to the IMO itself, a 400m walk down Rondenbosch Main Road. A patch of pavement along the way described by Geoff as ‘literally impossible for suitcases’ turns out to be literally possible for suitcases, but otherwise this is an uneventful final leg of our journey, at least relative to the dozens of teams flying into Cape Town from all over the world this morning.

Once at the UCT towers of accommodation everyone receives a goodie bag of programmes, umbrellas and IMO stationery, and a room. Apart from Frank, who merely gets a goodie bag. This is a hugely stressful day for the IMO organisers, and this one was definitely by far the most efficient of the four I’ve experienced, but the difference between our levels of concern and their levels of concern on this matter is mildly concerning. In the end everyone gets a bed on which to relax and examine their loot. I’ve got the sub-warden’s room, which appears to mean nothing apart from having a kitchen sink rather than a bathroom version, and having a view inwards rather than towards the mountain like the students on the other side of the building, which, incidentally, is shaped rather like the emblem of the Isle of Man.

It also becomes clear that this is going to be the week of the thousand sleeveless sweaters, which given the temperature in the rooms may be getting more use than planned. We see the signs reminding resident undergraduates to bring a heater and laugh coldly. Our guide appears to be indisposed, so senior guide Julian offers to take us for a short tour through part of central Cape Town. Highlights include the exotic trees and attention-seeking squirrels in the Company Gardens, and a market mainly featuring African curios, selling more exorcist masks than you could shake a stick at.

I go for a run round the campus, and fall down a very small flight of steps after being distracted by a flock of ibis and Egyptian geese. They continue to cackle at my misfortune, but I nonetheless return in time for the essential tour of the dining area. Frank and Gabriel seem highly enthused by the volumes of mayonnaise available. No other enthusiasm is visible except for the end of the Wimbledon final, and the possibility for several rounds of bridge, alternating with attacks on past shortlist problems. Gabriel’s and my bidding patterns might charitably be described as unconventional, but seem to work surprisingly well together. More relevant intellectual challenges await though, so it is an early night all round.