IMO 2014 – Part Three – Opening Ceremony and Exams

Monday 7th July

It’s the day of the opening ceremony, and there seems not to be much going on for the students around the accommodation sites, so rather than sit around feeling nervous, we decide to tackle another mountain. I remain unconvinced that the so-called Lion’s Head looks like its name, no matter how much further the analogy is taken by references to Signal Hill, home of the famous midday cannon blast, as the flank and tail and so on. Led by Joe and his freshly acquired Duke of Edinburgh Bronze award skills, this climb is extremely pleasant. The panoramic views from the top over the peninsula, the bays on both sides and Robben Island more than reward our final rocky exertions and make up for the disappointment of the cloudy visit to Table Mountain last week.

Reinvigorated, it’s time for sitting around and listening to speeches as we are transported en masse to the upper campus for the opening ceremony. While no-one could accuse the Minister for Education of including insufficient detail in her address, and a bit less amplification for the drum troupe and the operatic tenor singing the national anthem might have improved both, this was excellent by comparison with the norm. The decision to hire a professional compere was a wise one, as he riffed effortlessly through what might have otherwise been awkward moments, including the heckling of the vice-chancellor’s speech from the chandeliers by a small flock of starlings.

Also novel was the plan to dispatch the procession of teams based on the order in which they first competed at the IMO. For once this meant the UK got the chance to catch the eye early in proceedings. As the first team to throw gifts into the audience (surplus IMOK 2013 keyrings before you ask) along with Gabriel’s second year in a row of successfully bearing another team member round the stage on his shoulders, this was a triumph in every regard. Breaking up the procession at the halfway mark with a circus performance also worked very well, though one could feel the visceral clenching of 1200 buttocks when it became clear the mime artist was indeed going to choose a pair of contestants for audience participation. Geoff gives the team a cheerful wave from the upper balcony. This is initially misinterpreted as a triangle, leading to confusion about whether this is a Masonic greeting or merely a hint for the geometry component of the exam.

Tuesday 8th July

The team avoid the nervous chaos of a mass bus ride, and instead opt to walk up the hill to the sports hall which will be the site of the exams. Spirits seem high and there is evidently no need for a rousing team talk. After all, if you’re not feeling up for the IMO at the start of the first paper, at least you have 4.5 hours to increase your enthusiasm. Other countries seem to be having grave difficulties finding their desks but the UNKs are giving off confident signals by passing this first task, even though Warren and Frank’s desks are not labelled. As a pleasant novelty, the guides and deputy leaders are allowed to sit in the tiered spectator seating and observe the lead-up to the start of the exam. As a less pleasant novelty, they are allowed to stay there even after the start of the exam, though some people are openly chatting within a few metres of the contestants. Eventually the call to act like adults and leave in silence is made, and the serious business can begin.

It becomes apparent that the deputy leaders are not going to be given copies of the paper. Some take this opportunity to become extremely angry indeed, but it seems like less effort to go for a run up the mountain to the King’s Blockhouse, an old armoury and cannon installation towards the top of Devil’s Peak. On the way back, I pass by the exam hall again and count at least three unlocked side doors into the gallery. Of course this is being patrolled intermittently by invigilators so poses no real security risk, but I can nonetheless see some of the UK team, and they are indeed wearing all the layers which Jill and I had previously nagged them to bring.

Afterwards, I have the luxury of a 30 second glance at Freddie’s paper before starting our informal debriefs. Everyone reports the same outcome: a) it was really cold and b) they thought Questions 1 and 2 were really easy and couldn’t make progress on Q3. There is discussion of whether a floor symbol in the wrong place is likely to be heavily penalised. I reassure them that it obviously will not.

Rather than soak up the purgatorial air of the student residence all afternoon, we head off to the nearby Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Highlights include the Protea plantation, a roosting pair of lesser spotted owls, and the canopy walkway, though Jill’s enthusiasm visibly dampens when a group of American tourists match step and kickstart some interesting resonance phenomena. 18-year-old Gabriel particularly enjoys the sign banning children from chasing the resident guinea fowl. He finds a guinea fowl and pursues it. He then finds a whole flock of guinea fowl and encourages 15-year-old Joe to join him in chasing them, before chastising his protege for flouting the rules. Gabriel is available for birthday parties, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and combinations thereof.

Three guys try to commandeer our taxi home, and awkwardness follows when it becomes apparent that they are coordinators, whom we definitely should not be meeting until after the exams. In any case, we keep our taxi and arrive back in time for a lengthy discussion predicting the composition of tomorrow’s second paper. The team suggest that every IMO must include a functional equation, but the stronger statement that every set must include a functional equation remains open.

Wednesday 9th July

We repeat yesterday’s operation, sending the team up the hill with best wishes, but today I diverge for the deputy leaders’ excursion to Cape Point, organised at the last-minute by our relentlessly energetic senior guides Robyn and Justin. Highlights of the trip include seeing a herd of eland and a baboon in the national park and the walk down to the lighthouse marking the southernmost point in Africa. Well, in fact it turns out that Cape Agulhas, about 50 miles away, holds that title but that doesn’t diminish the experience. All the while, our guide Rhonda holds everyone’s attention with the account of her family’s life through recent South African history on the Cape Peninsula.

It becomes apparent that some of the other DLs do that share the constraint that we need to return in time for the end of the exam, as had been promised before departure. A battle of wills develops regarding whether to stop at the Cape of Good Hope for a photograph. My will wins. Nonetheless, by the time some members of the delegation have finished smoking and purchasing postcards, we are against time, and I end up having to catch up the UK team walking home across the rugby fields. They have enjoyed the geometry Q4, and have a mixed take on Q5. The range of speculative noises being offered suggests I may have a long night ahead.

Meanwhile, Geoff returns from the top secret leaders’ hotel, the location of which was revealed merely three times this year. We exchange news then proceed to a preliminary glance at the scripts. Some things seem good, some things seem unconventional. After dinner, I brave the frozen wastelands of my room and start a more detailed analysis. Q2 is going to be a fight. I really need to talk to Harvey, and not just to let him know that there’s no ‘D’ in ‘Pigeonhole Principle’. Anyway, he and the rest of the team are stuck behind about 400 contestants watching the World Cup on a small TV, but I bide my time and catch the moment when Holland miss the first time to snake through and perform my interrogation. A few minutes later, we confirm that Harvey’s coin has indeed been wrong about the outcome of the past eleven matches. The Germans and Argentinians will be queueing up for a viewing faster than you can say ‘independent and identically distributed’.