Balkan MO 2016 – UK Team Blog Part One

The Balkan Mathematical Olympiad is a competition for high school students from eleven countries in Eastern Europe, hosting on an annually rotating basis. For the 33rd edition it was Albania’s turn to host, and the UK was invited to participate as a guest nation.

A report with more mathematics, less frivolity and minimal chronological monotonicity can be found [SHORTLY].

Wednesday 4th May

I put the finishing touches to another draft of another chapter of my thesis, cajole the Statistics Department printer into issueing eighteen tickets, six consent forms and a terrifyingly comprehensive insurance policy, and head for Gatwick to meet the team. The UK imposes a policy that we will only take anyone to the Balkan MO once, so as to maximise the number of students who get to experience an international competition. The faces aren’t entirely new though – all six attended our winter programme in Hungary over New Year and the recent selection camp in Cambridge. They are showing the right level of excitement: the level that suggests they will enjoy the competition but won’t lose their passports in the next thirty minutes. As a point of trivia, this UK team are all sixth-formers, which, after checking not very carefully, doesn’t seem to have happened for any UK team for a long time, possibly not since 2008 when I was a contestant.

As of February this year, it’s now possible to fly direct to Albania on British Airways, which is a major improvement on the alternatives featuring either a seven-hour layover in Rome, or a nailbiting twenty-five minute interchange in Vienna. A drawback of the diary format is the challenging requirement to say interesting things about flights. In this instance, my principal challenge is to find some leftover room in my seat, as my neighbour’s physique has the same level of respect for the constraining power of armrests as the sea for the battlements of a child’s sandcastle. Across the aisle, Renzhi and Thomas face the twin challenges of a sheet of functional equations I’ve collated, and the well-meaning attempts of cabin attendants and their own neighbours to discuss said functional equations.

Later, over dinner next to Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana, we discuss the role of mathematics in recent films. Based on a sample size of at most two, we decide that `The Man who Knew Infinity’ is slightly better than `The Imitation Game’, partly because the former had fewer mathematical errors, or at least mispronunciations, about which Gerry feels strongly.

Thursday 5th May

The drawback of the new BA route is that it doesn’t run on Thursdays, so we are actually almost a full day early. Morning brings a cloudless summer’s day, and views of the imposing mountains that encircle Tirana. The students have assembled a healthy collection of past problems that they are keen to attempt as practice, and it seems natural to attempt this in a slightly more interesting place than the hotel lobby for at least some of the day.

Our guide Sebastian waves his Blackberry and rapidly conjures up an excursion to Mount Dajti, a small resort two-thirds of the way up a small mountain accessed from suburban Tirana via cable car. We follow a sign that seems to point to the summit, but the trail has distinctly horizontal ambitions. We are rewarded nonetheless with some pleasant views over the mountain range down past enclosed cerulean lakes down to the Adriatic, and even beyond to Italy.

Gerry is concerned about whether our return route is actually taking us where we want to go. He is right to be concerned, but not for that reason. It is the correct direction, but through a military base. Despite this, we make it back to the top of the cable car in the correct number of pieces. There’s the chance to alter this with some diverting activities, namely horse-riding and target-shooting. The targets are balloons, mounted on a clothes line at roughly horse-head-height. We move along.

Several years of attending maths competitions has increased both my ability to solve problems in Euclidean geometry, and also my suspicion of anything with a title like ‘Museum of National History’. I’m going to have to adjust the latter, because the recently-opened Albanian version, called BunkART, was actually excellent. It was housed in the five-level 108-room bunker built into the mountain to protect Enver Hoxha from nuclear attack. The rooms detailed the recent, fragmented history of the country, and were interspersed with aggressively modern art installations. In one basement which used to house the isotope filters, we were treated to a video loop of blood dripping onto barbed wire set to Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

While some regional competitions have adopted the ‘benign dictatorship’ approach to choosing the problems, the Balkan MO still has a problem selection phase. So I separate from the students and spend a pleasant few hours playing around with some of the proposals in the rooftop lounge of the leaders’ hotel on a balmy night in central Tirana.

Friday 6th May

The task for today is to construct a paper. A committee has selected a shortlist of problems, and we have to narrow this down to four, with one from each topic area, with an appropriate range of difficulty. The shortlist definitely contains some gems and some anti-gems, and more thoughts about these can be found in the official report.

The only dramatic moment comes when the Greek leader flourishes a webpage and an old IMO shortlist problem, which does indeed contain a proposed question as a lemma, and so it is rejected. Partly as a result of this, a medium geometry problem is chosen quickly; and the hard combinatorics shortly after lunch, since everyone likes it, and no-one can propose a better alternative. Selecting the final two problems, from number theory and algebra produces several combinatorial challenges in its own right. A rather complicated, multi-round election takes place (in which the UK, as a guest nation, does not get a say), and the final two problems are chosen, and the paper is complete.

Interestingly, this matches exactly the ideal paper I’d been hoping for last night, but with the middle questions the other way round. I think the UK students will enjoy it, and I’ll be very pleased for anyone from any country who solves the final problem. It’s fascinating to talk to the leaders of Bosnia and Montenegro, who discuss in detail why their respective education systems mean they are confident their students will struggle much more with Q3.


In the middle of the selection process, there was a rapid transfer to the students’ site in Vore, 15km away, to attend a brief opening ceremony. There is a warm speech from the deputy minister for education, some brief dancing, and the parade of teams. The wholesaler had a bargain on quartered polo shirts, so, unlike the UK flag they are carrying, our team are invariant under both reflection and rotation.

I am summoned to be an expert on the usage of English to prepare the final version of the paper. I feel that the problem authors have done an excellent job, and there is little work to do except suggest some extra sentence breaks and delete some appearances of the word ‘the’. Pity then the other leaders who return to the Harry Fultz school to translate and approve all the versions in their respective languages. It’s midnight as a I write this, and no sign of their return…

Saturday 7th May

This is what we’ve all come for, as the contestants are transported into Tirana for the 4.5 hours of the competition paper. They are allowed to ask questions of clarification during the first half hour. Twenty-five minutes pass, and we are untroubled, so we smugly conclude we must have achieved a wording with total clarity. In fact, the exam is starting slightly late, and a mild deluge begins, mostly concerning the definition of ‘injective’. Both the era of UK students asking joke questions and UK students asking genuine questions have passed, so I am left in peace.

Somehow, Enkel Hysnelaj has single-handedly produced LaTeX markschemes for all four problems overnight, and these are discussed at some length, though it’s to his credit that they didn’t require even longer. The leaders and deputies are then wheeled off on an excursion. Our destination is Kruje, famous as the hometown of Skenderbeg, the Albanian national hero, and just before that is Fushe-Kruje, famous as the place where George W. Bush’s watch was stolen during an official visit. On the way up to the castle and museum we pass through a bazaar where there is the opportunity to buy a carpet, a felt hat, or a mug decorated with a picture of Enver Hoxha. I will be sure to drop some hints to the UK students about ideal choices of gift for Gerry.

The scripts will be arriving a bit later, so there’s the chance for a wander around Tirana in the early evening sun. My planned trip to the Museum of Secret Surveillance is sadly foiled since it hasn’t yet been opened, but there are several more statues of Skenderbeg to enjoy. The question of why he wears a goat head on his helmet remains open. Since dinner is a mere two hours after another meat-centric five course lunch, I turn my attention to the UK scripts which have just arrived. I glance at questions 1 and 4 and the latter is mostly bare while the former is pointedly well-written. The same applies to question 3. All of our nagging about clear written work has very much been rewarded here. As a personal bonus, I can therefore spare time for a late dinner. My attempt at ordering a quick snack results in about a kilo of ribs with the ubiquitous lemons, but will hopefully deflate slightly during coordination in the morning.


One thought on “Balkan MO 2016 – UK Team Blog Part One

  1. Pingback: Balkan MO 2016 – UK Team Blog Part Two | Eventually Almost Everywhere

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