Thursday 1st August 2013

Peter Nelson (Deputy): IMO 2013 Colombia Report

In July 2013, I served as deputy leader for the New Zealand team at the International Mathematics Olympiad in Santa Marta, Colombia, travelling from July 15-29. The following is an account of my time in Colombia.

On July 15, I travelled from Toronto, where at the time I was based, via Bogota to the airport at Santa Marta. It was a relatively short taxi ride to Aluna Casa y Cafe, the venue for our pre-IMO training camp. The team, as well as leader Chris Tuffley and manager Stephen McConnachie, arrived at Aluna from New Zealand after a substantially longer itinerary the next morning. Three of the team, Natalia Chen; George Han; and BC Cho, had attended the previous IMO in Argentina. For the other three students, Jaehwan Kim; Ian Seong; and Vincent Qi, this was their first IMO. We were to train at Aluna and adjust to the local climate and timezone until July 21st, the first day of the IMO. Chris Tuffley was present until the 18th, at which point he left for jury meetings.

Mathematically, we had much to get through. Our first day was relatively light to allow for jetlag recovery, but from there we had mathematical activities in both the morning and afternoon. Breakfasts at the hostel cafe allowed us to start early, and most of our group work on problem sessions took place in the same cafe, which was relatively quiet for most of the day. Available space was much more of an issue for the three mock IMO exams we had to get through. In order that the students be seated far enough away from eachother and other distractions, we needed some creativity; for one exam we had the students all placed in different parts of the indoor-outdoor multi-level hostel, and another we had the six students writing the exams on three adjacent bunk beds. Needless to say, this was not ideal. The tropical sun and high humidity were a real problem, and I can’t blame one student for briefly nodding off. Despite all this, performance was solid on the mock exams and I think the students obtained useful experience.

Casa Aluna was a friendly hostel owned by an Irish ex-pat, and both he and his staff made us feel very welcome. Santa Marta was a pleasant seaside city. It felt colourful and chaotic, but never unsafe. Restaurant food was not expensive (especially at the hostel cafe), and the cooler evenings where we went out for dinner were a good time to explore. BC’s knowledge of Spanish was quite useful in deciphering signs and menus. On our one afternoon off, we took a minibus to a local beach and a good time was had by all.

On 21 July, we packed up to take the bus to hotel Irotama, the beachside resort where the IMO was held. After a chaotic check-in session at the lobby, we were given our rooms; Stephen and I were in a building at one end, Natalia in the middle and the students at the other. The hotel was beautiful, and our generous and air-conditioned rooms had amazing views. We had direct access to a perfect beach, and iguanas running between palm trees were a common sight. Tasty food was provided for everyone at a choice of many restaurants. On a more negative side, we learned after inquiring that our access to the internet was completely shut off except in one very small internet room’ for the whole IMO, a supposed anti-cheating measure that caused many grumbles among students and deputy leaders alike.

We also met our guide, Fabio, who noncommittally informed us of transport details for the next day’s opening ceremony. The day unfortunately proved slightly disastrous. After an early breakfast and a badly organized embarkation on a fleet of buses, we took the 2- hour ride to the ceremony’s venue, a university gym in Baranquilla. The opening ceremony, which started at around 11am, lasted 4 hours, including huge amounts of live music and dance not suited acoustically or volume-wise for the echoey gym, and long untranslated speeches by local politicians. Teams were paraded through the gym accompanied by a projected slideshow of their names and information about their country. There was clearly a lot of effort put in, but the timing was sadly misjudged, and by the time it finished around 3, it seemed everyone was mainly concerned about not having eaten since our early breakfast. We were brought packed lunches after finally boarding our buses afterwards, but tragically the included chicken sandwiches had been unrefrigerated since the morning and gave food poisoning to a number of students from many countries - our team was lucky in this regard.

The next two days saw the competitions, which were held at a venue a short distance from the hotel. While the students were writing, I got to know the deputy leaders from Australia and the UK, and we worked on the problems together when the exams were made available to us. After the second day the students had produced a number of complete solutions, with several students claiming full solutions to problems 1 and 4, a performance that is often enough for a bronze medal. Chris Tuffley arrived from Baranquilla a few hours after the second exam was finished.

The days after that, covered in more detail by Chris’s report, were for co-ordination, a task for me and Chris while the students enjoyed themselves. Unlike last year, co-ordination issues did not cause much widespread controversy, and the leaders and deputies slowly obtained our marks from the competent co-ordination teams. For Chris and I the most exciting moments pertained to George’s solution to problem 5, a hastily transcribed and slightly patchy but clever analysis argument that it took us some time to understand. Once we saw its correctness, we argued successfully, through a number of sessions, for a 5/7, contributing to his impressive total of 22.

The Jury meeting decided on cutoffs somewhat unkind to our students - BC earned a comfortable bronze and George a bronze that was just slightly below a silver, but Vincent and Ian unluckily both scored one below the Bronze cutoff of 15. Our final result was two bronzes and three honourable mentions. Our two medals were awarded at the closing ceremony, held outdoors at the impressive Panteon de la Patria. This was not at long, but again somewhat marred by organizational issues. After another day in Santa Marta, we went our separate ways; me returning to Toronto, and the others to New Zealand.

My thanks go to Stephen, who for a second year in a row was indispensable at doing all the organizational things I’m much worse at, and to Chris, for being a great partner in crime in representing New Zealand mathematically. Finally, I thank the team for providing me with great company for the time we were away. I wish them all best of luck in the future.