Thursday 20th March 2008

Rupert Nelson: IMO 2007 Vietnam Report

To top off our year’s worth of preparation for the 2007 IMO, the NZ team undertook a week long training session at the University of Auckland. We did days of up to 8 hours of preparation for the competition, including mock tests, lectures and problem sessions. At times this was a little grueling, but it sure as anything was more interesting than school maths, and there was always the knowledge that we were about to go on an exciting trip overseas – this thought had been a huge source of motivation throughout our training during the year.

And eventually it came. On Sunday 22 July we left Auckland airport late at night. The mathematical side of the preparation was now over, and now we just had to focus on being in the right state of mind mentally. It was my second IMO, and this year I felt a much larger weight of expectation on myself. At the 2006 Olympiad in Ljubljana, Slovenia I had exceeded my personal expectations, winning a bronze medal. I felt like I should be aiming for the next step – the silver medal, only ever won by a New Zealander four times in our history of competing which goes back almost 20 Olympiads. However, at the same time I considered the nature of the competition. The IMO is a contest where you can’t really count on anything. Often students with high expectations do abysmally badly, and in general, on average around one person per team will perform far worse than they had hoped for. Therefore I resolved to think positively about my chances, but at the same time I knew that I should not take for granted that I would be able to repeat my 2006 medal-winning result.

After a minor ticketing crisis in Hong Kong airport we arrived in Hanoi. We all felt a sense of relief that we had truly made it there. We met up with our Vietnamese guide and several of the other teams that had come through on our same flight. One of the great things about the IMO is the social side. Last year in Slovenia we had got to know similar people from all over the world, and we made good friends with a lot of them. This is an essential part of the IMO experience.

That first bus trip from the airport to our hotel was amazing. I had never in my wildest dreams considered that the city would be so different from what I had previously seen in other countries. The most notable differences were motorists’ habit of using their horns every three seconds (this is an exaggeration, but only slightly!), the ad hoc approach to electrical wiring, and obvious disregard for any kind of building permit system. It was amazing how disorderly everything was, from the traffic to the architecture. It was truly chaotic. But at the same time this sense of busyness had a real charm to it, and this is now what I love Hanoi most for.

Motorcycles in Hanoi.  (Source:  Jingcheng Bian)

Motorcycles in Hanoi. (Source: Jingcheng Bian)

The IMO had a nice atmosphere to it. The entire competition (students and managers, that is, not leaders or deputy leaders) stayed in one compound, and it was sunny and summery the entire time – a huge contrast from the weather of New Zealand in July. But soon the reality of the whole thing sunk in. After a grand opening ceremony, featuring the President of Vietnam himself, we made final preparations and went to bed.

The contest itself was spread out over two massive rooms at Vietnam’s national convention centre. Everyone got to the exam room tantalizingly early and spent about half and hour sitting at our desks in apprehension. It was interesting to see the various nervous habits of the competitors, who were all dealing with their nerves in their own personalized way, either with repetitive fidgeting or a blank stare into space or anything in between. And then it began.

The first question was long, meaty and hard to get your head around, and had the potential to throw people’s confidence. Once I got into it, however, it actually revealed itself to be pretty straightforward. After momentarily going down the wrong track, I managed to work out the first part of the question, and followed that up with part two. I wrote up my solution to part a, and then, struggling to find the right wording for part b, I decided to leave writing it up until later. And I moved on to question 2. This turned out to be a big mistake – I never really got into the question mentally, because I always knew I had q1 part b to come back to, and in the end I rushed down my solution to part b in the last 15 minutes of the exam (and this solution wasn’t explained well enough so I lost marks for it). I was slightly annoyed, but resolved to focus on the second day of the contest.

The first question of day 2 was a relatively straightforward geometry problem. I got it out in about an hour, and wrote up my solution. Then, knowing that I probably needed a full solution for the second question to gain a silver, I attacked it with everything I had. In the end, I was beaten by a better question, but I was glad I had given it a good shot.

Contest examination room.  (Source:  IMO07 photo archive.)

Contest examination room. (Source: IMO07 archive.)

As a team, we were all pretty happy with how we had done, and were now ready to relax and enjoy the IMO experience.

Unfortunately, I had to be back in New Zealand for duties at my school ball. And so I was whisked away to the airport within hours of finishing the second exam (again, the trip to the airport was slightly incredible: road laws in Vietnam serve only as a rough guideline to how you should get around in a mêlée of motor scooters and cars). Flying out of Hanoi, I felt a slight sense of sadness. I was missing what was really the fun half of the trip – the mixing and mingling with other teams, the tourism side of it, the closing ceremony and the highly illicit partying into all hours of the night (mathematicians indeed know how to party). Also I knew that my IMO career had come to an end. I had spent four years involved in the programme, and, correspondingly, many hours slaving over those seemingly impossible problems. The IMO has provided me with many new experiences, travel-wise, socially and intellectually, and has been a great thing to have been involved in.

I arrived back in New Zealand at 9:30 at night on Friday 27 July. Amidst of preparations for my school ball, I received update from Vietnam that I had scraped through to get a bronze, and that Ilya and Ronald had also got bronzes, while Jed and Emily had got honourable mentions – not a bad NZ showing by any standard!