Wednesday 8th July
Because of my complicated post-IMO itinerary, AirAsia will be a major feature of my life over the coming weeks, so perhaps I should be careful what I say. First impressions are not good. The online check-in software would have been out-of-date in the late 90s, and within an at the time completely empty plane, the algorithm assigns us seats 23A, 23B, 23C, 23D, 23E, 23F, 24A and 8F. Still, you get what you pay for, and we did not pay a lot at all. What we get is a flight to Thailand, during which we meet the Malaysian team, and our own students attempt one of the hardest outstanding problems from last year’s shortlist.
We arrive in Chiang Mai, and find an impressive greeting party from the IMO, who seem organised, keen to present us with garlands, and even more enthusiastic about taking photos than me. Our guide, Korn, leads us onwards to the Lotus Hotel, where the students will be staying for the duration of the competition. Our initial impression is that the rooms are lovely, the lobby is full of familiar faces, and the dessert is bright blue jelly. So far seems an excellent venue choice.
I’ve been in touch with BBC World about a live interview tomorrow morning. There’s been some confusion with photographs, so they are particularly keen to talk to Neel about his experiences as a girl attending international maths camps. Even in the event of finding an alternative narrative arc, the arrival of 600 technophile teenagers is putting strain on the hotel’s wifi. Skype seems a distant possibility, given the difficulty even in following an exciting first day of the (original) Ashes, featuring our second favourite prodigious Joe, via text. The Anglophone viewers of SE Asia will have to contain their excitement for now.
Thursday 9th July
We are up painfully early, in order to arrive painfully early at the opening ceremony. We have our first experience of songthaew, the ubiquitous red taxi minibuses. Though rather reminiscent of a police van, at least it’s a chance to get to know each other better. The team have brought their flags and brushed up smartly, and seem keen to pose with everyone who asks. Security is very tight – we are scanned repeatedly and our temperatures taken. We have a three hour wait, the giant hall is very stuffy, and it’s not clear whether we will be allowed to leave in a medical emergency. Five of the team work on C8, while Joe continues his quest to experience the first aid facilities at every IMO he attends. The room is very well-equipped, and the staff seem keen to use as much of the equipment as possible on Joe, but eventually they are persuaded that a horizontal surface and a glass of water will more than suffice in this instance. I find this gently air-conditioned room by some margin the most pleasant place in Chiang Mai so far.
All of this endeavour is for the benefit and protection of the princess, who as an enthusiastic supporter of STEM and enrichment is guest of honour. Her throne is suitably gold, and her entrance suitably Sheba-esque. Because of the presence of royalty, we are informed that our team procession across the stage must be formal – no projectile key rings this year. She departs with commensurate fanfare at the end of a remarkably short ceremony with a tragic lack of folkloric dancing, then there is the opportunity for more spontaneity, and an infinite number of photographs. The trend of the past two years that UK team members should carry others on their shoulders at such events seems to have become firmly established, to the chagrin of risk assessment form writers everywhere, though Sam and Warren appear reliable chariots this time. I try to ask as many of the officials as possible what their medals are for, but it’s tough getting many replies. I guess Thais are uniformly very heroic.
The afternoon stretches out somewhat, so we visit the Suan Dok temple, where everything is gold or brilliant marble. Apparently anyone who rings all of the many bells and gongs that line the perimeter will become famous, and some of our team gleefully test this hypothesis, to the annoyance of the many feral dogs who had been enjoying a mid-afternoon snooze in the grounds.
The students are keen for an early night, but not before a dance-off to some Thai music videos. While channel-hopping, they find coverage of the opening ceremony on the news, including a brief clip of our sashay and bow across the stage. We were not together. At all. Jill and I retire to the lobby, where no-one seems to have the heart to tell the hapless Elvis impersonator that he has forgotten to turn on his microphone.
Friday 10th July
The students are up fairly early for the first paper. They are allowed to take in a ‘talisman’ small enough to fit in their hand, and a kedondong each, lovingly rescued from Malaysia, seems the perfect choice. There is a mixture of nerves and excitement, but the algorithm for getting 500 contestants into 500 desks seems sensible, and so there is little for me to do except offer best wishes.
During the exam itself, the deputy leaders were whisked off to visit an elephant sanctuary. I remain ambivalent about the principle of teaching animals to perform tricks, but at least this show was tasteful, with a penalty shootout building to a triumphant climax unfamiliar to England fans, and a sequence of live paintings that were genuinely remarkable. I also take the chance for a short ride. It is clear that going uphill is a great deal more comfortable than lurching downhill, especially when steps are involved. It was a memorable experience to see these magnificent animals up close, and I hope the existence of such places helps towards conservation in the wild too.
We return to meet the students directly after the exam. Warren seems unimpressed by Q2, despite having solved it, while the others’ moods range from disappointed to bitterly disappointed. We move on though, especially since it will turn out that many comparable countries have a similar reaction to this question, for which the crucial division into cases is more tedious than one might hope for under competition time pressure.
Mindful that the hotel is likely to be rife with unhelpful gossip all afternoon, the UK team and Luke from Ireland head off for the old walled city in the centre of Chiang Mai. First a museum of the region’s cultural heritage, with plenty of information about basket-weaving, and some answers to Neel et al’s further questions about karma, such as whether it is a universal conserved quantity. The Lan Chang temple offers further sleeping dogs, gilded dragons and the chance to meditate on the fact that there’s more to life than technical number theory problems. We go again tomorrow.
Saturday 11th July
The second paper dawns. Neel and Joe seem to be competing to see who can wear the team polo shirt for the most days consecutively, so again we watch our mostly turquoise band file through the various entrances into the exam hall. The deputies have nothing to do this morning, so John from USA and James from Canada and I attempt to go walking up the lower reaches of the Doi Suthep mountain. Despite about 600,000 hits on Google for ‘Chiang Mai hike’, both our guides and the hotel staff tell us this is literally impossible, but recommend walking along the side of the three-lane highway instead.
The hikes mentioned online turn out to be literally entirely possible. I briefly slip flat on my back, and now have the exact imprint of a bottle cap in the middle of my spine, but otherwise it is entirely enjoyable. Lunch at a nearby restaurant offering North-Eastern Thai food is incredible, and it’s lucky the exam is finishing soon, otherwise I would have happily eaten twice my body weight.
We return to find the lobby overwhelmed with the news that today’s paper was hurriedly rewritten last night, after the original version was revealed accidentally to some DLs yesterday. The British students are again unhappy. It’s been a long year of enjoyable mathematics and worthwhile training, and no one likes to see it end in tears of frustration. But maths competitions are exciting precisely because sometimes even strong students struggle, and it doesn’t reduce the value of the mathematics they have experienced together during preparation.
While that might hold in abstract, in practice it seems sensible to find more active immediate distraction. We find a path to the bottom of a waterfall, then a trail to the top of the same waterfall through the jungle. Lawrence enjoys using a leaf almost as long as himself as a fan, and Warren, leading our march, regularly shakes a particularly luscious tree besides the path, to induce a refreshing shower onto those bringing up the rear. By the end, we are all sweatier, but I hope also more grounded about the cosmic importance (or not) of making the most shrewd substitutions in a functional equation.
Geoff is now allowed to see the students, and we enjoy a relief from rice with a rare Western meal, before I transfer to the leaders’ hotel, where we will be working hard at the scripts over the next few days.