Saturday 20th August 2011

Tom Yan: IMO 2011 the Netherlands Report

The countdown to this year’s IMO (International Mathematical Olympiad) began in Auckland. The team of six contestants as well as their leader, deputy and observer congregated in Grafton Hall for three days worth of training prior to departure from Auckland. Staying at Grafton Hall was a pleasant experience with comfy facilities and sumptuous meals. Of course, there were also the mathematical preparations consisting of various lectures and problem sessions. Nothing eventful transpired during these days.

After a spell of training at Grafton Hall, the team left for Auckland Airport and then for Amsterdam. The journey was rather cumbersome with the destination inconveniently located at roughly the other end of the world. We make several stops between our flights to satisfy Stephen’s craving for Burger King (and for our planes to refuel – but that’s beside the point). Finally, we arrive disorientated at Schiphol Airport where we were greeted by the Dutch leader Johan. While he arranged for us to travel to Texel – the place where the joint Dutch-NZ training will be held – we bid goodbye to Chris and remind him of our general distaste for weird combinatorics, which I’m sure he took full heed of. Then we proceed to travel for a long time on the metro to get to our ferry. Many of us note the picturesque views of cobbled streets dotted with neat, colourful houses. We also scan the rustic landscape, which is quite deceptive in its similarity to NZ – save for the occasional occurrence of a windmill. Eventually, we trudged onto the ferry taking us to Texel.

For the next few days, we trained with the Dutch team sitting through 2 mock tests and sampling some nice problems from the 2010 shortlist. We also take time to explore the local town, which looks like something from a fairy tale. But other than that, it’s not very interesting. The weather, might I add, is also not very interesting. Like the countryside, it too seemed to be mimicing the Auckland weather. It did not take a liking to us during our interview on the beach by the Dutch media. In having to avoid showing our frozen faces, the Dutch national TV allowed our feet instead to make a cameo appearance.

Novotel is where we were staying in the final build up to the IMO. It’s a very warm accommodation – made all the more cozy by the vehement outside weather. After meeting our guide Marlisa, the NZ contestants settled into their allocated rooms and were given neat packs loaded with goodies. We later meet up with other teams such as the Australian team. Generally there is a consensus that this year’s IMO was very well managed and the catering staff very helpful. Indeed, they had even arranged to have the opening ceremony only a brief stroll from our stay – which I’m sure caused no sleep loss or worry. There is also, however, a slight disappointment shared by some teams about the cuisine. The food given seems to have its lineage in Indian culture as opposed to Dutch – and so many teams have taken a liking to the stack of instant noodles present in the dining hall.

After the opening ceremony, the NZ team proceeded to make many photos- to use the Dutch saying – with other teams. Especially popular (as always) was the DPRK delegation. But soon the weather soured and loitering outside was deemed impractical. We hurriedly retreated back to the hotel – the contest is the next day.

Day One of the IMO this year was notorious for its inclusion of the windmill problem. The windmill problem was arguably one of the hardest problem 2s ever to grace the cover of the IMO. It was also one of the most loathed for many strong teams weren’t able to solve it at all. Many displeased contestants noted the disproportionate difficulty of problem 2 and 3 in that 3 was much easier than 2, and those who did make the right choice to skip 2 ended up scoring dramatically higher than those who valiantly carried on with faith in the jury to sort the problems in the right order of difficulty. After the exam, a French contestant condemned the windmill problem on the IMO ’11 Facebook page – he got a lot of likes. Also this year, the invigilators screened contestants with metal detectors before entrance into the hall. So I’d like to remind next year’s team to get rid of its habit of bring guns to a maths exam – at least before the IMO anyway.

Day Two bore fewer surprises save for the lack of easy to medium geometry. Indeed, this year the jury broke the lengthy decade long tradition of having an easy and a medium geometry problem on the exam. On the whole the NZ team fared very well with 2 silvers, 2 bronzes and 2 HMs – although the same could not be said of me. We again captured our 29th placing from last year. It must be mentioned that this year’s IMO helped to produce the most successful IMO contestant ever – Lisa Sauermann with her final mound of many golds, a silver and a perfect score. Also congratulations must go to Madelon from the Dutch team for gaining the highest score in her team for her silver medal.

The last leg of the IMO consisted of excursions and sightseeing opportunities. We must have our guide Marlisa to thank for her expertise in guiding us in and out of Amsterdam. Particularly notable were a 30k long bike ride through the Dutch countryside (under the auspice of good weather for once) and a fun walk through Amsterdam proper where we got a full taste of the many aromas and sights of the liberal city. After a well-organised closing ceremony, the team was ushered to a ‘beach’ in central Amsterdam where the farewell party took place. It was a delightful affair with ample hot food and drinks. Heaps of NZ souvenirs were handed out and we amassed a large pile of Mongolian currency. The weather again did not share the festive mood – but never mind because it was (mostly) warm.

The next day marked our final day in Amsterdam. We bid goodbye to our sprightly guide Marlisa with the presentation of our mascot – the Kiwi. Then back we came from the other side of the world loaded with memories and other stuff.

To finish, I’d like to thank the following people (or organisations) in no particular order: Chris, Ilya, Stephen, Royal Society of NZ, NZMOC, IMO ’11 ’10 ’08 organisation committee for making IMO so cool, Dr Michael Albert, Dr Arkadii Slinko and past volunteers for their invaluable time and efforts. Thank you.