Tuesday 22nd February 2011

Stephen Mackereth: IMO 2010 Kazakhstan Report

The 51st International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), held in Kazakhstan, was a fantastic event all round. Enormous thanks are offered to our generous sponsors, in particular the Royal Society of New Zealand, whose continued support has been hugely valuable.

The venue of Kazakhstan offered a particular interest for all of us, and we found it to be (mostly) agreeable and intriguingly exotic. In the competition itself, the New Zealand team put up its best ever performance, gaining two silvers and four bronzes. Outside of the exam room, the atmosphere surrounding the Olympiad was as friendly and exuberant as ever. At no other event in the world do so many like-minded budding mathematicians meet, and so the conversation often and shamelessly turns to maths, and camaraderie abounds….. although this year there was some rivalry between nations brought on by the FIFA world cup. The Dutch are our training partners for the Olympiad, and so out of loyalty we ended up supporting them, to the disgust of the Hispanic nations. But I had better begin my account in the proper place, so here we go…

We arrived in Astana (capital of Kazakhstan) after 30 hours of travel time, and without the company of Scott and Ilya. Scott got stuck in Auckland airport for bureaucratic reasons and was bailed out several days later. Ilya, on the other hand, was delayed in Germany. This proved slightly inconvenient for us, as Ilya was our deputy leader and also the only Russian-speaker among us. Life was extremely interesting for several frantic days. In the meanwhile we embarked on our traditional joint training camp with the Dutch. It was a pleasure to see our old friends Harm, David, Merlijn, Quintijn, and Birgit, and also to meet the rest of the large Dutch contingent. Mealtimes were something less of a pleasure in the rather dubious hotel we were staying in, though I may be biased as I was the one who ended up with food poisoning.

The training camp itself was the standard regimen of mock IMOs and group problem solving. Our leaders also took preventative measures against cabin fever by organising an excursion into Astana, taking our minds off maths for a brief while. By the end of the week Scott and Ilya had arrived, and the hotel’s food hadn’t improved, so we were ready to head off to meet up with the main IMO group. At this point I was also beginning to grow nervous, as my marks had been uniformly bad throughout the training and the Olympiad was growing dangerously near.

We spent a couple more nights in Astana with the other teams whilst registration and the opening ceremony took place. It was also here that we met up with our truly wonderful guide and translator Laura, who would expertly keep us out of trouble for the remainder of our stay. Then we were all escorted off to the exam venue, which was a camp out in the woods, five hours from Astana. The camp, Baldauren, served as maximum-security exam location whilst also offering beautiful scenery and a lake to go boating on. But before we could enjoy these things, we had to deal with the Olympiad itself.

Here I shall omit what could be a rather lengthy account of the various discourtesies we were subjected to at 6.30am on exam day. Suffice to say that the camp’s management appeared to follow some sort of ‘late-to-bed-and-early-to-rise’ policy. The New Zealand team was delighted to hear that a member of the Australian team exercised considerable wrath against the management on all of our behalves.

The exam itself appeared to go well for everyone. Fortuitously, Q.1 was a functional equation, which is a reasonably popular branch of Olympiad algebra that our leaders had thoroughly drilled us in. I solved this question quite quickly, but unfortunately the excitement went to my head, and I failed to produce any more coherent work in the next three hours. Q.2 was geometry – my favourite area – so I had hoped to make more progress with it. Now all chances of getting a medal would depend on the second day.

That afternoon, we met up with Ilya and May (our excellent team manager). IMO regulations restrict the team leaders and deputies from seeing their students during coordination; IMO tradition, on the other hand, stipulates that every year the deputies stage a revolt and do so anyway. This occurred without mishap. We talked over the scripts, and it appeared that everyone did well.

The second day dawned undisturbed. I was optimistic. There is always an ‘easy’ geometry problem at the Olympiad, and seeing as so many people seemed to have difficulty with Q.2, I was betting that the easiest problem today (Q.4) would be geometry as well. It was. I am ashamed to admit, this one took me over three hours to solve because I bungled an early step. Eventually I found my error and went ahead to solve the question. Now I could reasonably hope to get a medal, provided nothing had gone horrifically wrong.

The pressure was now off, and so we were taken on a series of tours and activities. The papers now had to be marked and coordinated by the leaders. We had not seen any of our leaders for a while, and so we were on tenterhooks, keeping ourselves informed through the reports of the British team. Over the next few days, we found our marks to be 15, 16, 16, 16, 21, 22. At Olympiad level, these are truly excellent marks all round, particularly Tom and Malcolm on 21 and 22. The real question was where the medal cutoffs would lie.

So, whilst we listened to concerts, explored the steppes, drank fermented mare’s milk, visited small towns and historical museums, and rambled through forests and mountains, our minds were perpetually engrossed in speculations about the cutoffs. When they were finally announced to be 15, 21, and 27 for bronze, silver, and gold, respectively, our shrieks of hyperactive joy and hysteria were unparalleled among all other teams. Of course there is a certain pure joy in maths for maths’ sake, but for every team member to win a medal is an incredible and exhilarating result. After that, the remaining days spent in Kazakhstan passed in a blur of euphoria.

It must be mentioned, huge thanks go to our team leader Dr Chris Tuffley and deputy leader Ilya Chevyrev, who provided mathematical training and fought valiantly to justify our marks in coordination; to the team manager May Meng for her role in organising the team, assisted most ably by Alan Parris; and to the many other volunteers and helpers who contributed to the training of the team for 2010.

In closing, I would only add that the International Mathematical Olympiad is a truly exceptional event. It offers a level of challenge and stimulation that is unparalleled at high school level competitions, and it develops mathematical skills that any undergraduate (and many postgraduates) would envy. The Olympiad offers keen students a taste of real mathematics, which is to say, pure exploratory problem solving. The work that the lecturers and organisers do to sustain this program is incredibly valuable, and for many high school students provides a welcome enrichment to the standard mathematical curriculum. Additionally, at the IMO itself, a lucky six New Zealand contestants will have earned the chance to meet with other mathematicians of equal or greater ability. This is a wonderful opportunity for further mathematical stimulation and enjoyment. I offer my personal highest recommendation for the New Zealand Mathematical Olympiad Committee, and I will be delighted to contribute to their work in the future.