Sunday 16th March 2008

Rupert Nelson: IMO 2006 Slovenia Report

After six months of hard preparation it was time for the New Zealand team to leave. We assembled at Grafton Hall, an Auckland University student boarding house. Our time at Grafton Hall was largely dictated by the copious amounts of practice we did for the competition. With practice tests each morning lasting for four hours each, followed by four hours or so of lectures and miscellaneous mathematical endeavours in the afternoon, the day became pretty full-on. However, once we got over to Europe the amount lessened, as preparing right up until the day of competition is perhaps unadvisable.

We left Auckland on the 6th of July for Frankfurt. After a 24 hour flight we were greeted in Germany with the surprise of our bags not coming through. Only three bags out of eight emerged from the baggage carousel, resulting in our having to wait around at Frankfurt airport until the next Los Angeles-Frankfurt flight came through. Even after this, we were still three bags down, and the unlucky owners had to do without for a few days. We caught the train to Heidelberg, a city of around 400 000 inhabitants which boasts a magnificent palace up on the hill overlooking the centre of town. The youth hostel where we stayed was four-to-a-room, but a nice place nonetheless. With this being situated next to the Heidelberg rugby club, we all felt right at home.
It was World Cup finals weekend, and the whole town seemed to get right into the proceedings. Both nights we watched the games in a restaurant in the old town, joining in the nation-wide roar when Germany beat Portugal, and witnessing the flamboyant honking of horns from all the Italians in the town when they won the finals. New Zealand’s support of the All Blacks doesn’t compare with the kind of dedication you see in Europe from the football-crazed.

We spent most of our time in Heidelberg either wandering around souvenir shops, visiting various cathedrals (or at least trying to visit them, they always seemed to be shut), buying food from the fantastic sausage vendors and stocking up on the clothes that Air Lufthansa deprived some of us of. And, lest we forget, two mock tests, each a solid four hours long. The palace was a magnificent building, containing a big Roman-style edifice and the world’s largest wine barrel. We were assured by various tourist guides that Heidelberg had not been bombed during the war because Roosevelt’s wife had found the surrounds to her taste upon an earlier visit, a believable story, considering the beauty of the place.

On the 10th of July we left for Ljubljana, our final destination. Ljubljana is a town similar in size to Heidelberg. We arrived not having much of an idea regarding what to expect from Eastern Europe, but Ljubljana proved to be a very refined, urbane place. Apart from the occasional Soviet-style disheveled-looking apartment block, you could hardly consider Ljubljana to be any less developed than any of its counterpart cities in Western European counterparts. Slovenia is, in fact, the only former Yugoslav state to have been allowed into the EU, and has crime rates lower than New Zealand (although it seemed to have a bit of a graffiti problem, and it seemed to be quite vogue for the locals to tag in English rather than in Slovene).

We stayed with the rest of the contestants in a high school student accommodation complex. It was a good environment for the purposes of the competition. We quickly got to know many students from all over the world. Personally, I became friends with the Australians, the South Africans, the Irish, the Brits and the Austrians, and various others from many different places around the globe. However, it soon dawned on us that the competition was near.

The exams took place after the opening ceremony, on the mornings of the 12th and 13th of July.
The IMO consists of two exams, each lasting 4.5 hours. Each exam has three questions, each of which is marked out of seven. Every question demands some kind of mathematical proof, which may not necessarily be very long but is often exceptionally difficult to come up with, especially under exam conditions. To emphasize the difficulty of the test, note that this year the median mark was 14 out of 42. After the first day’s exam I emerged confident that I had solved numbers one and two, a performance that ranked quite highly and one that I was pleased with. However it eventuated that my solution to question two was slightly flawed, and although this flaw was easily fixable, a ruthless marking scheme meant that I received one out of seven for this question, which gave me a score of eight on the first day, when added to my seven from question one.

On the second day I managed to find a full solution to the fourth question (i.e., the first question of the second day) and ended up with around two hours to attempt questions five and six. These two questions, however, were fiendishly difficult. Question six in particular was solved by seven of the 500 contestants. With the seven from question four and one mark which I managed to scrape on question five, I ended up on 16 and was thus awarded a bronze medal. The rest of the New Zealand team did pleasingly, exceeding our expectations, with James Liley getting another bronze and Martin Spencer being one mark off. Hyo Reep Song and Martin also gained an honorable mention for a complete solution on one of the questions. With at least four out of our six returning next year, we hope to have a strong team.

After the competition we went on various excursions around the countryside of Slovenia. These included trips into caves and out to the Adriatic Coast. On the second to last day we were taken to the alpine region of the country, which unfortunately didn’t feel particularly alpine, it being the middle of summer. The trip concluded with the closing ceremony and presentation of medals.

We said our goodbyes and left at 4 am on the 18th. Our trip home was marred by a 12 hour delay in Los Angeles Airport, but we made it through without losing any baggage. After 40 hours of traveling we arrived back in Auckland with good memories, an assortment of Slovenian souvenirs and the realization that it was still freezing winter in New Zealand.