The International Mathematical Olympiad is the original and most prestigious competition for school-aged mathematicians, now in its 56th year. About a hundred countries send teams of up to six contestants. I was fortunate to have the chance to take part when I was at school, and this year I’ve been leading the training for the UK team to take part in the IMO in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The following report, which tries to offer a light-hearted account of the range of things which happen at this sort of competition and during the final stages of our preparation.
Tuesday 30th June
It’s the hottest day of the year in the UK. Transporting 25kg of blazers and polo shirts through central London lives up to my expectations, but at least there is news of the ‘wrong type of heat’ for the rails of the Heathrow Connect to provide comic relief. Our flight to Kuala Lumpur is surprisingly cold, but uneventful. Something’s not working with my screen, so I watch the second half of The Imitation Game, and then the first half, before giving in to my end-of-term sleep debt for far longer than planned, probably infuriating those members of the group unable to find rest on flights.
Wednesday 1st July
Confusingly in equal measure to those who have slept and those who haven’t, it’s evening in humid Malaysia. The nine members of our group are met by a minibus designed for six people. Jill and Lawrence act as human suitcase barriers while Joe has to squeeze around the gear-stick, a device not frequently required in the KL rush hour. Our home for the next week is Putrajaya, a planned city between KL and the airport, characterised by stalled construction projects, and giant but under-used snaking highways. The endless roundabouts and rumble strips evoke fond memories of journeys on the X5 through Milton Keynes. This is one of the cheapest places in the world for five-star hotels, on account of a perhaps predictable disparity between optimistic supply and negligible demand.
Our initial impressions of the international school are much more positive, with beautiful grounds, and a well-equipped boarding block, with an absurd abundance of giant beanbags. Alison, the headteacher, welcomes us and directs us towards a Malaysian restaurant where the satay is generous, and the curry laksa fiery enough even for Geoff’s exacting taste. The students seem to have exhausted their mathematical appetites with trig exercises on the plane, so content themselves with cards and the school’s interesting (and nostalgic for some) collection of late-90s video games, while trying to guess how bad their jetlag will be tomorrow.
Thursday 2nd July
The UK adults seem to have slept for about four hours combined, so the theme of the day is coffee. After a leisurely start, we’re off for a tour of Putrajaya, a city of pink mosques and white elephants. While we wait, some of the team try to do the entire geometry section of the 2000 IMO shortlist using areal co-ordinates. I side with Warren regarding contempt for such methods, but it passes the time, though Sam and Neel also take the opportunity to make friends with a parrot, following Geoff’s extensive introduction to Asian ornithology.
Our boat trip around the man-made lake features an inaudible commentary about the waterside buildings, whose architecture combines Space Age with classical Islamic style very strikingly. The sequence of not-quite-complete bridges is crying out to be turned into an Euler-esque networks problem. After an infinite volume of Chinese seafood, the team leave Geoff and Jill to digest and explore further on foot. We do finally find the giant cenotaph-like sundial at the centre of the botanical gardens but even among this sizeable group of mathematicians, only Harvey is able to work out how to interpret it correctly.
Geoff concludes the afternoon by delivering a session on ‘the power of Power of a Point’, though wastes the opportunity for a triple pun by using the whiteboard rather than Powerpoint. Meanwhile, the Australians have arrived, and shortly there are new faces to meet and lots of catching up to attend to.
Friday 3rd July
We’re up early for the start of business proper, our first practice exam. The IMO takes place over two days, and on each day the students sit an exam lasting 4.5 hours with three questions. The first question each day should be accessible to all the contestants, while the third question is supposed to be very taxing, and normally at most a handful of the several hundred students achieve a full score. For the next five days, our two teams will be tackling a paper of this kind each morning.
4.5 hours is a long time, and we’ve arranged for refreshments. A curious bright green cake arrives, along with apple and aloe vera juice, for those who like the fresh taste of fruit to be accompanied by the fresh aroma of baby wipes. Meanwhile Geoff heads off to Thailand to join the other leaders and begin the process of setting this year’s IMO papers.
So I have an afternoon of solo marking lined up, which isn’t as bad as it might sound, since the UK team are off to an excellent start, in particular offering a delightful range of classical, inversive and trigonometric solutions to a geometry problem. Most of them have enough time to make substantial progress through the final question concerning polynomials and cope fine with the analytic aspects, despite the fact that they won’t meet any of this material properly until university. We only need a brief discussion of each other’s solutions before dinner, which rather descends into a contest to eat the largest number of ribs. Australian Alex Gunning already has two IMO gold medals, but I’m sure he relishes equally earning the victor ludorum title here too.