Thursday 13th March 2008

James Liley: IMO 2004 Greece Report

The International Mathematical Olympiad is a worldwide maths competition, held annually in different places around the world. Students of secondary school age from over 80 countries travel together to pit their skills against 400 other competitors in one of the most prestigious competitions in the world. The IMO grew out of a Russian maths competition, starting with the Warsaw Pact countries in 1960 and steadily expanding as other countries joined. Each year the host country can invite new participants, so New Zealand started in 1988 at the invitation of Australia. This year the 45th IMO was held in Athens, Greece, in July, and I was lucky enough to be selected in the New Zealand team competing in the event.

Prior to the competition, the team assembled in Auckland for a four-day training camp at Grafton Hall, a university hostel. It mainly consisted of a 4.5 hour ‘mock test’ every morning, and an afternoon lecture and problem-solving session. A team sponsor, MWH engineering, was present, as were the team reserves and several maths professors.

We left for Greece on 2 July. After travelling through Hong Kong and Munich, we reached Athens 35 hours later. Athens is apparently always ‘under construction’, and coming up to the Olympic Games it was even more so. Coming from an Otago winter was interesting: there were no days when the maximum temperature was less than 35° C. In typical Mediterranean character, the city was glaringly white. Smog was quite severe.

Athens from above.

Athens from above.

On our first day in Athens no one felt up to doing any maths, so we went sightseeing instead. A highlight was Lykavittos Hill, the highest point on the Athenian plain, offering an incredible view of the city. We also visited several 500-year-old Christian temples and churches (considered ‘modern’ by the Athenians), as well as having a look through the local shops and fleamarkets and sampling some of the local cuisine. Our host district, Monastiraki, was set around the ancient Hadrian’s Arch and the more modern parliament buildings.

The next morning we set off for Paros, an island in the Cyclides group famous for its marble ‘of a lucid and translucent quality’. Marble from Paros was used to build the famous Parthenon on the Acropolis, and by legend the last to be mined was used for Napoleon’s grave. We were staying in a traditional fishing village called Naoussa but spent some time looking around the island. Training continued with a mock test each morning, then sightseeing in the afternoon.

We journeyed back to Athens for the start of the Olympiad. Typically the IMO books out a hotel or university for the exams so we were well accommodated. Thoughtfully the staff did not plan any excursions before the competitions so it was maths all day.

The opening ceremony took place some days later, after teams had met and somewhat acclimatised. After the inevitable official speeches the entertainment included dancers, singers, traditional musicians and the annual team march-past.

Opening ceremony

Opening ceremony.

The next morning was the first day of the competition. The problems were designated as geometry, algebra, colouring, algebra, geometry, and number theory respectively. According to some second-timers the problems were a little easier than last year (not very comforting with no problems out and ten minutes to go). However, we held our own, especially with Heather’s and Jethro’s results, and managed to out-place last years team.

In the days following the exams the hosts took it upon themselves to show off the country. As well as journeying to the famous Acropolis we were taken to Poseidonís temple at Sounio and saw some of the sites of the northern Peloponnese peninsula, including the famous Corinth Canal, the tomb of Agamemnon, and the city of his reign, Homer’s famous Mycenae. The mere age of these sites is astonishing — civilisations that flourished three thousand years ago. The Corinth canal, a 6 km long man-made canyon 70 m deep, is a worthy testament to the lives those people lived.

After a sorry goodbye to the teams we had met on our stay the time came to head back. After a look at the Athenian Museum, housing exhibits from everything from ancient Chinese to Egyptian, we took a bus out to the newly-renovated airport and flew back home.

Corinth canal

Corinth canal.

I am very grateful to the NZ Math Olympiad Committee, the Royal Society of New Zealand, MWH engineering, Alexandra Rotary Club, the Otago Daily Times, and Dunstan high school for their hugely generous support and sponsorship that gave me the opportunity to go on this trip. It was an amazing and highly beneficial experience and one that I would never have been able to go on without them. Thank you.