IMO 2016 Diary – Part Four

A pdf of this report is also available here.

Thursday 14th July

I have now spent a while thinking about square-free n in Q3 after rescaling, and I still don’t know what the markscheme should award it. I therefore request that Joe and Warren receive the same score as each other, and any other contestant who has treated this case. In my opinion this score should be at most one, mainly as a consolation, but potentially zero. However, we are offered two, and after they assure me this is consistent, I accept.

There is brief but high drama (by the standards of maths competitions) when we meet Angelo the Australian leader, who confirms that he has just accepted one mark for almost the same thing by his student Johnny. A Polish contestant in a similar situation remains pending, so we all return for a further meeting. I’m unconvinced that many of the coordinators have read all the scripts in question, but they settle on two for everyone, which is consistent if generous. The only drama on Q5 is the ferocious storm that sets in while I’m making final notes in the plaza. Again though, coordinator Gabriele has exactly the same opinion on our work as Geoff and I, apart from offering an additional mark for Lawrence’s now slightly damp partial solution.

And so we are finished well before lunch, with a total UK score of 165 looking very promising indeed. I’m particularly pleased with the attention to detail – Jacob’s 6 on Q4 is the only mark ‘dropped’, which is brilliant, especially since it hasn’t come at the expense of the students’ usual styles. We’ll have to wait until later to see just how well we have done.

It would be nice to meet the students to congratulate them in person, but they are with Jill on the somewhat inaccessible Victoria Peak, so instead I take a brief hike along the trail down the centre of HK Island, ending up at the zoo. This turned out to be free and excellent, though I couldn’t find the promised jaguar. There was, however, a fantastic aviary, especially the striking flock of scarlet ibis. A noisy group of schoolchildren are surrounding the primates, and one lemur with an evil glint in his eye swings over and languidly starts an activity which elicits a yelp from the rather harried teacher, who now has some considerable explaining to do.

With 1000 people all returning to UST at roughly 6.30, dinner is not dissimilar to feeding time at the zoo, and afterwards various leaders lock horns during the final jury meeting. Two countries have brought an unresolved coordination dispute to the final meeting, and for the first time since I became deputy leader, one of them is successful. Congratulations to the Koreans, who now have a third student with a highly impressive perfect score. Andy Loo and Geoff chair the meeting stylishly and tightly, and although there are many technical things to discuss, it doesn’t drag for too long. Eventually it’s time to decide the medal boundaries, and the snazzy electronic voting system makes this work very smoothly. I feel the gold and bronze cutoffs at 29 and 16 are objectively correct, and the 50-50 flexibility at silver swings towards generosity at 22. We can now confirm the UK scores as:

UKscoresThis is pretty much the best UK result in the modern era, placing 7th and with a medal tally tying with the famous food-poisoning-and-impossible-geometry IMO 1996 in India. But obviously this is a human story rather than just a 6×6 matrix with some summary statistics, and Harvey in particular is probably looking at the world and thinking it isn’t fair, while Warren’s gold is the ideal end to his four years at the IMO, two of which have ended one mark short. The American team are pretty keen to let everyone know that they’ve placed first for the second year in succession, and their remarkable six golds will hopefully allow scope for some good headlines. There is much to talk about, celebrate and commiserate, and this continues late into the night.

Friday 15th July

Our morning copy of the IMO Newsletter includes an interview with Joe, with the headline ‘Meh’. Frank Morgan has rather more to say, which is good news, since he’s delivering the IMO lecture on Pentagonal Tilings. He discusses the motivation of regular tilings where the ratio Perimeter/Area is minimised, starting from questions about honeycombs raised by the Roman author Varro! We move onto more mathematical avenues, including the interesting result of L’Huilier that given a valid set of angles, the associated polygon with minimal Perimeter/Area has an incircle, and the corresponding result for in-n-spheres in higher dimension. A brief diversion to the beach on the way home is punctuated with attempts to project the hyperbolic plane onto the sand.

The day’s main event is the closing ceremony, held at the striking Hong Kong Convention Centre. As usual, the adults and our students have been vigorously separated for the journey. As I arrive, it seems the UK boys have been directing a massed gathering behind the EU flag on stage, while the non-European teams are divided into two sides in a giant paper aeroplane dogfight. All attempts by the organisers to quash this jocularity are being ignored, and after bringing everyone here two hours early, I have minimal sympathy. Geoff sits on a secluded bench, and agrees to the many selfie requests from various teams with regal if resigned tolerance.

The ceremony is started by a fantastically charismatic school brass band, and proceeds with some brief speeches, and more astonishing drumming. Then it’s time to award the medals. Lawrence and Jacob get to go up together among the clump of 24-scorers, while Kevin from Australia does an excellent job of untangling his flag and medal while keeping hold of the ubiquitous cuddly koala. Neel has been threatened with death if he appears on stage again with an untucked shirt, but no direction is required for his and Warren’s smiles as they receive the gold medallists’ applause.

P1010513 (3)Afterwards, there is a closing banquet. We get to join British coordinators James and Joseph for a climate-defying carrot soup, followed by a rare diversion onto Western carbohydrates accompanying what is, for many of us, a first taste of caviar. Both Geoff and the American team are forced to make speeches at no notice. It is all generally rather formal, and fewer photographs are taken than usual. An attempt to capture Joe and Harvey looking miserable results in one the biggest grins of the evening. The UK and Australian teams have a thousand stickers and micro-koalas to give out as gifts, and some of the attempts at this descend into silliness. All clothing and body parts are fair game, and Jacob makes sure that Geoff is fully included. The UK and Australian leaders, variously coated, retreat from the carnage to the relative safety of our top-floor balcony as the IMO drifts to an end, until midnight, when it seems sensible to find out what the students are up to.

Saturday 16th July

This is what the students are up to. When we arrived at UST last week, everyone was given food vouchers to redeem at the campus’s various restaurants. Very very many of these are left over, and, despite the haute cuisine on offer earlier, people are hungry. They have therefore bought McDonalds. And I mean this literally. Animated by Jacob and American Michael, they have bought the entire stock of the nearest branch. If you want to know what 240 chicken nuggets looks like, come to common room IX.1, because now is your chance. Fortunately our team have made many friends and so after the Herculean task (I make no comment on which Herculean labour I feel this most resembles) of getting it to their common room, pretty much the entire IMO descends to help. Someone sets up a stopmotion of the slow erosion of the mountain of fries, while the usual card games start, and a group around a whiteboard tries to come up with the least natural valid construction for n=9 on Q2. Around 3.30am everything is gone, even the 30 Hello Kitties that came with the Happy Meals, and we’re pre-emptively well on the way to beating jetlag.

I wake up in time to wave Geoff off, but he’s been bumped to an earlier bus, so the only thing I see is Lawrence and colleagues returning from a suicidal 1500m round the seaside athletics track. Our own departure is mid-morning, and on the coach the contestants are discussing some problems they’ve composed during the trip. They’ll soon be able to submit these, and by the sounds of it, anyone taking BMO and beyond in 2018 has plenty to look forward to. Jacob has already mislaid his room key and phone, and at the airport he’s completed the hat-trick by losing one of the two essential passport insert pages. Fortunately, it turns out that he’s lost the less essential one, so we can clear security and turn thoughts towards lunch.

Jill has given me free licence to choose our dim sum, so the trip ends with pork knuckle and chicken feet. Our aim is to stay awake for the whole flight, and Neel helps by offering round copies of a Romanian contest from 2010, while I start proof-reading. By the time they finish their paper, many rogue commas have been mercilessly expunged. It should be daylight outside, but the windows are all shut, and by the ninth hour time starts to hang drowsily in a way that combinatorial geometry cannot fix, and so the mutual-waking-up pact kicks in, aided by Cathay Pacific’s unlimited Toblerone. Winding through Heathrow immigration, Joe unveils his latest airport trick of sleeping against vertical surfaces. We diverge into the non-humid night.


IMG_0468 original (2)There’s a great deal more to life and mathematics than problem-solving competitions, but our contestants and many other people have worked hard to prepare for IMO 2016 over the past months (and years). So I hope I’m allowed to say that I’m really pleased for and proud of our UK team for doing so well! The last three days of an IMO are very busy and I haven’t had as much time as I’d have liked to talk in detail about the problems. But I personally really liked them, and thought the team showed great taste in choosing this as the British annus mirabilis in which to produce lots of beautiful solutions.

But overall, this is really just the icing on the cake of a training progamme that’s introduced lots of smart young people to each other, and to the pleasures of problem-solving, as well as plenty of interesting general mathematics. I have my own questions to address, and (unless I’m dramatically missing something) these can’t be completed in 4.5 hours, but as ever I’ve found the atmosphere of problem discussion totally infectious, so I hope we are doing something right.

Lawrence and Warren are now off to university. I’m sure they’ll thrive in every way at this next stage, and hopefully might enjoy the chance to contribute their energy and expertise to future generations of olympiad students. The other four remain eligible for IMO 2017 in Brazil, and while they will doubtless have high personal ambitions, I’m sure they’ll also relish the position as ideal role models for their younger colleagues over the year ahead. My own life will be rather different for the next two years, but our camp for new students is held in my no-longer-home-town Oxford in a few weeks’ time, and I’m certainly feeling excited about finding some new problems and doing as much as possible of the cycle all over again!


IMO 2016 Diary – Part Three

Sunday 10th July

I’m awake at 6am and there’s nothing to do, so take a short run along the edge of the bay. I meet an old lady singing along to a walkman (yes, really) while doing taichi. She encourages me to join and it seems rude to refuse. Suffice it to say I’m as grateful no video evidence exists as she should be that no audio recording was made. Six-hundred mathematicians queueing for powdered eggs seems like an unwelcome start to the day, so we are self-catering. The guides have been commanded to show every student how to find their place in the exam hall, and I approve of Allison’s contempt for the triviality of this task.

The main event of the day is the opening ceremony, held at the Queen Elizabeth stadium in the centre of Hong Kong Island. To no-one’s surprise, this involves a lot of time waiting around in the stifling UST plaza, which the students use to take a large number of photographs. The UK and Australian boys are smartly turned out as usual, but the polyester blazers are rather ill-suited to this tropical conditions, so we invoke Red Sea rig until air conditioning becomes available. The Iceland team are particularly keen to seek out the English members for reasons connected to a football match of which Neel proudly claims total ignorance. I picked up an EU flag for next-to-nothing last Friday, and now Jacob and Warren prove very popular as they circulate inviting our (for now) European colleagues to join us behind the stars.

The deputies are segregated in an upper tier and obliged to watch a rehearsal of the parade. Some of the organisers have a confused interpretation of the IMO roles. I still have some of the uniform with me, but an official says it is literally impossible for me to give it to the team. She is small and Joe Benton can catch flying ties as well as colds, so it turns out to be literally entirely possible, but for my trouble I get called ‘a very bad boy’.

Many hours after we left our rooms, the ceremony starts, and is actually very good, with a handful of well-chosen speeches, a mercifully quickfire parade of teams, and musical interludes from a full symphony orchestra, with various traditional and non-traditional percussion. The new IMO song Every day in love we are one involves a B section accompanied by a melange of watercooler bottles, but despite its catchy conclusion about maths, friendship and beyond, I suspect it may not trouble the top of the charts.

Monday 11th July

It’s the morning of the first IMO paper, and you can feel both the excitement and the humidity in the air. Some of our boys are looking a bit under the weather, but we know from past experience that the adrenaline from settling down in a room of 600 young contestants who’ve been preparing for exactly this can carry them through anything. I skip an excursion in order to receive a copy of the contest paper. Security is tight, and the deputies who have chosen this option are locked in a lecture theatre for two hours, and our bathroom visits monitored with commendable attention to detail. I guess that the combinatorial second problem is most likely to provoke immediate discussion, so I spend my time working through the details of the argument, just in time to meet our contestants when their 4.5 hours are up.

Q3 has been found hard by everyone, and Q2 has been found hard by other countries. Harvey’s kicking himself for drawing the wrong diagram for the geometry, an error that is unlikely to improve Geoff’s mood when he receives the scripts later today. Apart from that, we have a solid clutch of five solutions to each of the first two problems, and various nuggets of progress on the final problem, which is an excellent start. Several of the team are itching to keep trying to finish Q3, but the campus is likely to be annoying hotbed of spurious gossip all day, so Allison and I take them out. The very convenient MTR takes us under the harbour while the students and I debate the usefulness of the square-free case, and how well it is preserved under rescaling so that the circumcentre is a lattice point.

As we emerge above ground, Jacob is entranced by the live-action Finding Dory playground at Causeway Bay, and we toy with buying a pig’s trotter from a nearby market, but not even Lawrence is feeling adventurous enough with another exam tomorrow. We travel over to Kowloon via double-decker tram and ferry, and fortified by ice cream, take lots of photographs of the unique HK skyline, where even the giant waterfront office towers are dwarfed by Victoria Peak, which the contestants will visit while I’m marking. On our return journey, some of the team are impressed by the HK rush hour, indicating that they’ve clearly never tried to change line at Leicester Square around 6pm on a Friday…

Tuesday 12th July

Another morning, another trek uphill to a 4.5 hour exam. Time passes rapidly, especially now I’ve worked out how to order coffee without the ubiquitous condensed milk. The security arrangements concerning the deputies’ copies of the paper have been increased even further, but the IMO photographers have outdone themselves, and published on Instagram some pictures of the exam room with a level of crispness such that it’s clear the paper includes no geometry, and after finally getting hold of a proper hard copy, it looks like a paper which the UK team should really enjoy.

As so often after IMO papers, there is a range of reactions. Lawrence is unsure whether he presented his exemplar polynomial in a form that actually works. Joe knows and I know that he could easily have got at least 35 on these papers, but after over-meta-thinking himself on Q5, this isn’t his year. Like Aeneas gazing on the ruins of Troy, sunt lacrimae rerum, but also plans for new foundations. By contrast, Harvey has atoned for yesterday’s geometric lapse with what sounds like a perfect score today. Warren and Neel seem to be flying overall, and are doing a good job of keeping their excitement under control while the others muse. There’s plenty to think about, and Geoff has now arrived bearing yesterday’s scripts and several novels’ worth of anecdotes from the leaders’ site.

Before getting down to business, it feels sensible to walk off the Weltschmerz, and provide an outlet for joy in the nearby Clearwater Bay country park. There’s a long trail all over the New Territories, and we join it for a brief but purposeful stroll up through the light jungle and along the ridge. We’re confident we didn’t find the global maximum, but we find a couple of local maxima with great views out around the coastline, which seems to have Hausdorff dimension slightly greater than 1. We see some enormous spiders (though the Australians are substantially less impressed) before ending up an uncontroversial minimum where Jill has bedded in with merciful bottles of water on the beach. To say we are sticky doesn’t even begin to cover it but, crucially, we are no longer consumed by the morning’s events.

The UK boys are now masters of the complicated UST food court ordering process, and Warren endears himself to Geoff by producing a steaming bowl of spicy ramen as if by magic. The contestants have a ‘cultural night’, which apparently includes a greater number of hedge fund representatives than one might have expected. For me, it’s a night in with Geoff, green tea and the scripts for Q2. Joe and Neel have filled fourteen pages between them checking a construction in glorious detail, a step which Harvey has described in its entirety with the words ‘glue them together’. Overall, they are complicated but precise, and I have few concerns, so it’s only necessary to burn the candle at one end.

Wednesday 13th July

It’s time for coordination, where Geoff and I agree the UK marks with a team of local and international experts. The scheduling has assigned us the Q1 geometry early in the morning, which is a clear case of five perfect solutions, so we move to Q2. Coordinator Stephan seems very well-prepared for the UK scripts, so again we are finished in a matter of minutes. This allows us to bring forward our discussion of Q4. Jacob has made several small errors, all of which could be fixed by attacking his script with a pair of scissors and some glue. I believe the mark scheme should award this 4+2, and coordinator Juan thinks it should be 5+1. We are both open to each other’s interpretations, and have at least basic proficiency in addition, so again there is little need for debate.

The early evening brings the main challenge of the day, Q6, at which the UK has excelled. Our frogmaster Geoff has listed marks for five of our attempts, but the final script belonging to Joe has generated only the comment ‘magical mystery tour’. His solution to part a) diverges substantially from the most natural argument, and indeed involves wandering round the configuration, iteratively redirecting lines [1]. I am eventually convinced by the skeleton of the argument, though unconvinced I could complete the details in the finite time available.

We discuss the script with Lisa Sauermann, who explains some of the main challenges [2]. After a short pause for thought, we’re convinced by Lisa’s suggestion of equivalence with a point on the conventional markscheme. It would have been nice to have had more time to think about the subtleties myself, but this was some really interesting maths and we pack up for the day feeling very impressed with the quality of coordination here so far.

We and the coordinators are also very impressed with the quality of Harvey’s art. As a result, we now have an answer to the question ‘What should you do if you finish the IMO two hours early?’ Harvey’s answer at least is to draw a diagram of the Q6 configuration in the case n=3, where at each of the intersection points with the outer boundary stands a member of the current UK team. Precisely UNKs 1, 3 and 5 are wearing a frog. The real life sextet have been taken by Allison to Disneyland today, so some are potentially now wearing a princess. But while the contestants can let it go now, it’s off to work I go, as there’s still two sets of scripts left to ponder.

Harvey Q6[1] The mechanism for this redirection is neither canonical nor explained, and even in the best setup I can come up with in an hour or so of trying a huge class of diagrams, exactly half of the indices in the resulting calculation are off by \pm 1. The pressure of IMO Day Two can indeed derail even the most well-prepared contestants.

[2] There is a non-trivial difficulty when the area enclosed by our path is concave, as then some intersection points on the path arise from lines which are also part of the path. Handling the parity of such points looks easy once you’ve been shown it, but is definitely not obvious.