Sunday 28th December 2008

So-Young Park: IMO 2008 Spain Report

It had been nearly a year and a half since I set foot into the world of Olympiad mathematics. Eighteen months had passed since I first attended the lectures at the January Training Camp and here I was, representing New Zealand at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO).

On the evening of July the 6th, the New Zealand International Mathematical Olympiad (NZIMO) team, consisting of Jingcheng Bian, Ben Kornfeld, Heyang Li, John Bernard Ong, Tom Yan and myself, accompanied by our Deputy Leader Heather Macbeth and Team Manager May Meng, left the Auckland International Airport to attend the 49th IMO in Madrid, Spain.

This year’s IMO being in Madrid meant that we would be able to enjoy the wonderful Spanish summer, but it also meant that we had to fly for 31 hours to the opposite side of the world. We had been training hard throughout the year, finishing countless numbers of assignments, sitting the Asia-Pacific Mathematics Olympiad, attending many lectures and most importantly the “Maths Battle” against the last year’s team members. To top off this preparation for the 2008 IMO, from the day of our arrival in Madrid, we undertook a week long training session with the Netherlands IMO team. Our training sessions were very intense – full-on mathematics from 9am until 9pm, only interrupted by lunch and dinner breaks. Our preparation included sets of mock tests, lectures, problem solving in pairs and discussion sessions. This was often very tiring – especially since we were still suffering from jetlag. In the evening sessions we often found it hard to keep ourselves awake.

On Friday we took a short break from maths. We toured around Madrid, visited some of the tourist attractions, including Plaza Mayor, Sol and Palacio Real, and shopped around for a day. We experienced Spain’s rich history as well as the distinct culture. It was purely fantastic, especially because I was not very widely travelled, and also because New Zealand, in comparison to Spain, has a very short history. I could feel the Spanish culture everywhere, from architectures and food to more trivial things like cars and fashion.

Madrid street. (Source: Heather Macbeth)

On Monday, it was time to go. Our time to end the mathematical preparation and focus on being in the right state of mind mentally. Our time to be picked up by our IMO guide. Our time to go to the official accommodation site and meet the other contestants.

The Opening Ceremony was next day. Sweating in our long sleeved shirts in 38˚C, we travelled to the Circus, where the ceremony was to be held. Inside the circus was filled up with beautiful decorations, all maths-related, as well as hundreds of people from many different countries. The quality of the performances was outstanding and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire ceremony.

The day after was the doomsday. The first day of the examination. 551 contestants somehow all managed to fit in one massive room at Escuela de Caminos. As we arrived at the exam room very early, we spent about an hour and a half, panicking, worrying and fidgeting. As it neared 9am, I wished the NZ team good luck and took a seat. And then it began.

This was my first IMO, and although I had my hopes and expectations, I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform at a very high level. With nervousness I opened the examination booklet and stared at the questions. They looked extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible. I struggled even with the first question, let alone the other two. I vaguely knew how to approach the first problem, but I couldn’t solve it. I was pretty disappointed with myself because I knew it was an easier problem one than usual. I also did not produce significant amount of working for the other two questions. As I walked out of the room, I tried to keep cheerful and hoped for an improvement from the score I had received during my mock exams.

On the second day, I was determined to redeem myself and perform better. However, the questions were even harder than the previous day’s. To worsen my situation, I had an acute stomach pain from an unknown source, possibly from drinking milk in the morning. I spent most of my time on Question four, which was a functional equation problem. I knew there was a major problem with my solution but I was not able to finish it off. Although I was disappointed with myself, examinations were now well and truly over, and we were now ready to relax, socialise and enjoy.

The next three days were full of excitement. We had a party dinner with the ‘Hey Hey Hey Band’, went on excursions to places such as Segovia, Escorial, Madrid city centre and Toledo and on the last day, watched a Flamenco show. They were really amazing. I experienced even more Spanish culture and by the end I even could sing a song in Spanish and speak some basic Spanish verses.

The Hey Hey Hey Band.  (Site:  IMO08 photo archive)

The Hey Hey Hey Band. (Site: IMO08 archive)

The Closing Ceremony was held on Monday. The Prince of Spain and his wife had attended, and although I did not get a medal, the ceremony was still very spectacular. Sadly, none of the New Zealand team received a medal. However, Ben (who missed out on a Bronze by a mark), Heyang and Jingcheng managed to get Honourable Mentions.

The next day we set off to the Madrid Airport in order to fly back to New Zealand. Saying good-bye to our guide was difficult, as we had become such good friends. Overall, the IMO was an eye-opener for me. I enjoyed every single bit of it – the excursions, great friends I made and the examination itself. I know I did not perform well enough, but I still have gained so much from the trip. IMO has taught me how small New Zealand was, how much harder I had to work and how high the standards are internationally. IMO has provided me with inspirations, motivations, heaps of fun, and most of all, great friends. I must thank Michael Albert (the NZ team leader), Heather Macbeth (the NZ team Deputy Leader) and May Meng (the NZ team manager) for accompanying us to IMO and making it a fabulous occasion. I also would like to thank the Royal Society of New Zealand, NZAMT, Saint Kentigern College and my parents for their support and sponsorship.