IMO 2015 Diary – Part Four

Sunday 12th July

I spend many hours reading the students’ scripts for the medium questions 2 and 5. Psychologically, this solitude is quite a sudden shift after so many days of constant group interaction. Although only one of the twelve solutions is complete, I’m really pleased with how everyone has presented their progress. We’ve spoken a lot at the camps during the year about how to write up maths under various kinds of pressure so that it is intelligible to other human beings. All the boys have been very clear this year, so they should get plenty of marks and coordinating won’t cause much drama.

By comparison with the student site, the leaders’ hotel has slightly better views, slightly better food, and an even more appalling lift availability algorithm. When the work is done for the day, I meet Jill and the students at the night market, where Lawrence is sharing round a packet of fried giant crickets. They have enjoyed their excursion, especially the visit to an umbrella and other handicraft factory, where it seems they did their best to re-inflate the Thai economy. Neel has a three foot wide fan, hand-painted in a style evoking My Little Pony. While it doesn’t quite conjure the demure grace of, say, Callas as Madam Butterfly, it does induce a billowing wind tunnel effect, which is appreciated in the back of our taxi.

Monday 13th July

Today is the main day of coordination, when Geoff and I meet local markers to agree the UK students’ scores. Over breakfast we decide to ask for a solitary 1 for Joe’s hastily-written summary of Q6 in our first meeting. After some not especially thrilling wrangling about the meaning of the phrases ‘combinatorial description’ and ‘non-trivial progress’, we get what we want without having to deploy my carefully-worded speech.

This will turn out to be by some margin the most challenging meeting. On Q2, they have already decided to forgive Warren’s microscopic omission, and the mark schemes are extremely precise, especially for the middle problems which normally cause the most trouble. Everyone seems to be interpreting them sensibly and similarly so there are no delays, and we are able to bring forward the easier geometry meeting, and confirm all our marks by 5pm. We have {10,17,19,19,19,25}, which is certainly respectable, even if it does mean, to Geoff’s infinite chagrin after his boasts at breakfast, that we are beaten by France.

We’ve been keeping the students up to date via text while they’ve been petting elephants and dipping their feet in hot springs. We meet them for dinner, where they are disappointed at the lack of dramatic gossip about the process, but pleased with their scores, especially the efficient accumulation of part marks on the harder questions. It remains to be seen tomorrow what colour of medals all of this will generate.

Tuesday 14th July

While the UK is done, and I find some more obscure temples in town, other countries continue their final coordinations. It looks like Australia will have its best ever performance, with at least two students sure to receive gold medals, and the rumour is snowballing that USA has won, for the first time since the mid 90s. The students have been attending the IMO lectures this morning, and it seems that Ravi Vakil’s talk on `The Mathematics of Doodling’ has really got the UK boys thinking about space and the meaning of orientation.

Tiring of the comical lift process, I investigate the hotel’s external fire exit, disturbing a flock of pigeons, and a rat the size of a small dachshund. In pursuit of more interesting wildlife, Jill suggests we take the students to Chiang Mai Zoo for the afternoon. Sam and Harvey enjoy the real-life version of Hungry Hippos, and we find an enclosure with a large (ie at least 9), odd number of tortoises, of which precisely one is feeling rather, ahem, left out. The main attraction though is the giant panda Chaung Chaung, who we get to see eating his bamboo with the satisfied langour of a chubby toddler.

We diverge again so I can attend the final jury meeting, where after some brief admin, we pass rapidly to the medal boundaries. There is a new protocol in place this year, which I will leave for Geoff to explain, but the only non-trivial decision to be made is whether the gold cut-off should be rather higher than ideal or slightly lower than ideal. I disagree very strongly with some of the baffling comments which are made on both sides, but only the leaders have a say in this, and the end result is a narrow victory for the higher cutoff*. The UK upshot is that our triumvirate scoring 19 scrape into the silvers, while Warren unfortunately misses out on gold by one point for the third competition in a row. It’s hard to know what to say in these circumstances, but at least by meeting up with the Australian and American teams, we find other students in similar positions, and the feelings of elation and disappointment can be more widely shared.

[*As a result, about 1/15 rather than the statuted 1/12 students get the top award. The other option would have been 1/10.5. So all those leaders concerned about the ‘de-evaluation of the gold’ etc can sleep easy. So can any of their current and past gold-winning students, who had been so worried about retrospective reappraisal of their abilities. You’re right – this was ludicrous.]

Wednesday 15th July

I’ve got the rest of my life to lie in, so decide to cycle to the temple at the top of Doi Suthep. I rent the fanciest bike I can find, for B300, and, to the astonishment of everyone, a helmet for B200. Given the standard of driving, which is at times even worse than Colombia, this seems an absolute bargain. The ride itself though is more exertive than enjoyable, with no real views except the temple at the top, which is more extensive and more gold than the others in town, but also far more busy, which rather spoils the effect.

The real business of the day is the closing ceremony, held through the afternoon in the giant theatre within the student hotel. There’s an excellent drumming and dancing ensemble, and a beautifully-edited video of the IMO activities, which one probably ought to describe as comprehensive rather than a vignette. After about an hour, the medals are awarded, with a great deal more efficiency than normal. The idea to go in decreasing order of score within increasing order of medal is unusual, but does mean that our 19-ers receive their silvers together. Warren and Michael from USA compete for who can get their flag in the premier position. There are a few speeches, and a preview of IMO 2016 in Hong Kong, before we are released for more photographs and an early dinner.

The notion of having an indoor food market as part of the closing banquet is a good one, though it is a struggle to decide whether items are sweet or savoury. Lawrence, Joe and Sam get the chance to show off just how far their chopstick abilities have improved with tricky numbers like ribs and fruit salad. Then the live music starts, and whoever did the soundcheck has some questions to answer, as we can genuinely feel the bass vibrating through our chairs. We retire to the lobby which is, despite the continuing efforts of Elvis, much quieter. As various teams gather, and the students loiter to make final use of the games in the recreation room, this year’s IMO draws to a close.

Thursday 16th July

My flight to Mandalay is not until later, but I join Geoff to meet the rest of the UK group at Chiang Mai airport at 7am. Some of our students are looking rather rough round the edges, for a mixture of illness- and fatigue-related reasons, and there is enthusiasm only for a final round of anti-nausea medication. I’m sure it will be a fun 36 hours for everyone. In any case, soon they are off for a 12 hour layover in KL then home, and I have several hours to ponder.

My only negative thought about this year’s IMO was that the difficulty of the papers reduced the number of students who could feel the satisfaction of completing a medium or hard problem. Earning silver medals based on the easiest problems and part marks is not, in my opinion, entirely the idea, but of course it is the same for everyone. It’s probably also a good reflection on our training programme that the majority of our students feel they wanted to do much better, while we nonetheless came 22nd, with an entirely respectable medal haul. Certainly any disappointment felt about this result should not negate the value of everything they’ve learned by solving problems, and from discussions with each other and the staff during our training. In all other regards this IMO seemed a triumph. Students from all countries seem to have enjoyed themselves, and I’ve had a good time too.

Our camp for new students will be held in Oxford in just a few weeks’ time, and five of this team are eligible for Hong Kong next year. There’s plenty of interesting mathematics just around the corner. But right now, I’ve got to board the world’s most questionable aircraft, so consider it announced that I might have solved the Riemann hypothesis, and we’ll let fate run its course.


Final Words

Training a UK team and taking them to the IMO requires a huge amount of effort from a large number of people. Thanks are particularly due to:

  • All the academic and pastoral staff at our camps this year in Oxford, Hungary, Cambridge and Tonbridge, and the UKMT office, especially Bev, who ensured everything ran smoothly. Also everyone who helped set just about enough problems to sate the voracious appetites of our students.
  • Alison, Lina, Mun, and the other staff at Nexus International School, where our stay was pleasant and conducive to good mathematics.
  • Everyone involved with IMO 2015 who ran a competition which was, from the angles I saw at least, almost faultless. In particular, our guide, Korn, who couldn’t have been more helpful. We all wish him the best as he moves to Columbia next month.
  • Paul Janssen, the inventor of Imodium, without whose contribution to science many moments of this trip would have been much less comfortable for the protagonists.
  • Geoff and Jill, who were excellent colleagues in every sense through the challenging and the joyous moments of this year’s trip.
  • Our team, comprising Joe, Lawrence, Sam, Warren, Neel and Harvey, who are all thoroughly nice people. It’s been a pleasure to watch them improve together through the past few months, and I’m sure they will go far in whatever mathematical or non-mathematical avenues they choose over the years to come.

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