Sunday 16th March 2008

Martin Spencer: IMO 2006 Slovenia

This year was my second attempt at making the New Zealand Maths Olympiad team, and this time I was fortunate enough to be selected for the team to travel to Ljubljana, Slovenia, to compete in the 47th International Mathematical Olympiad.

The trip began early in July when we all met at Grafton Hall for 4 days of intensive training, consisting of mock tests each morning followed by lectures by Robin and others in the afternoon. I found the maths interesting and stimulating, and it was good to get back into the routine of the January camp.

On Thursday 6 July we left Grafton for the airport for the start of what was to be a rather eventful trip to Heidelberg, Germany, via Los Angeles. All went relatively well until we arrived in Frankfurt and made our way to the baggage claim, where only 3 out of our 8 bags turned up. We trudged over to the baggage tracing desk to be told that, indeed, our bags had been ‘misplaced’ and that 2 of the bags would be arriving on the next flight from Los Angeles, while the other 3 – including my bag – had apparently disappeared off the face of the earth. I must say that losing 5 out of 8 is a rather impressive strike rate even for an airport like Los Angeles.

The next part of the journey was to Heidelberg by train. This turned out to be a rather pleasant trip, as German trains are amazingly quiet and efficient compared to the museum pieces we have in Auckland. That afternoon, we finally made it to our accommodation, where none of us felt like doing any maths so we walked into town looking for something to eat, somehow managing to stay awake despite being jetlagged.

Over the next few days, however, we got straight back into the training regime with mock tests every morning, followed by sightseeing around the city. We also made a trip to Woolworths where the 3 of us without any luggage stocked up on German clothes, toothbrushes and soap. Heidelberg is a very pleasant city, complete with a medieval castle which we visited, and many ancient buildings such as churches and cathedrals. There is a tram that runs up the side of a bushclad mountain nearby, but some of us decided to take the hard option and walked all the way up, which made the view of Heidelberg at the top all the more rewarding.

All to soon, it was time to depart for Slovenia and the IMO. I was by now used to the idea of not having anything that I had packed, but as it turned out, salvation was at hand: at Frankfurt airport, we were informed that the lost luggage had returned to earth and would be delivered to us when we go to Slovenia. In Ljubljana, we were met by our guide, Teja, and shown to our accommodation, which from the outside looked like a large concrete block – one of the great ideas of the Soviets – but which was not so unpleasant from the inside. We were reunited with our lost bags at the appropriate hour of 2 am the next morning.

The Slovenians were of course eager to show off their small country, and after the contest we were all taken by bus to see the landscape, from the Adriatic Sea to the town of Bled in the mountains near the border with Italy and Austria, from where we could see Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest mountain. I thought the countryside was very similar to New Zealand, with mountain streams and lots of bush. The small coastline that Slovenia has looked typically Mediterranean, with olive trees everywhere, and the sea was very warm.

The competition itself was very challenging – but we were expecting that of course. I solved 2 of the problems, but of course I had made a silly mistake in one of my solutions and so missed out on a bronze medal. However, James and Rupert did well and were deservedly awarded bronze medals, keeping New Zealand on the medal table. After the competition I enjoyed meeting other teams such as the British, Irish, Austrians, South Africans and the Australians.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, and would like to thank all those who have made it possible, including Alan Parris, the Royal Society of New Zealand, and of course Michael, Robin and Shaun. It has been an unforgettable experience. But perhaps the last word should be a Slovenian one: CMRLJ (try and pronounce it! It means ‘bumblebee’)