Monday 24th July 2023

Michael Ma: IMO 2023 Report

The 2^(3!)th IMO was held in Chiba, Japan from the 2nd to the 13th of July. The travel cohort consisted of Ross, Josie, Kevin, Jamie as well as the wonderful NZIMO team; they are: 

For comedic effect they will be referred to as NZLn for integers n in the set S = {1,2,3,4,5,6} throughout the report.

Verse: Before the Flight

Before traveling to Japan, the team had a five-day non-residential training camp at the University of Auckland in order to sit four mock imo exams. The goal of the mocks was to supposedly to make us ‘enjoy doing maths’ before the IMO, although I felt like for some (including myself) it caused more pain for not solving some of the problems. Overall, the experience of sitting the mock exams and the collective effort to produce mark schemes for each paper afterwards made me aware of more exam techniques that could be useful in the real IMO. 

We were also in company of some past team members who helped out during the pre-IMO camp, such as James and Tony. Their presence in the room increased the average IQ by at least 100. After the mock exams we spent time either socialising (with card games) or discussing peculiar maths Olympiad riddles — especially the application of gravity in Bulgarian solitaires. 

After each day at the training camp, I would encourage myself to reflect on the problems on the mocks and be a bit more familiar with the techniques used in solving them. That didn’t happen though since I would fall asleep moments after arriving home.

On the third day however, there was a planned excursion in Auckland. Now someone ask me “Then why didn't they just begin [the pre-IMO training camp] a day later..” and I suppose the goal of this excursion is ‘teams bonding’. We first visited an ice rink just next to the University, in which everyone had different levels of difficulties maneuvering through the ice; some people were struggling like toddlers learning to walk, some people were racing through the tracks, some people were falling over and breaking their kneecaps… arguably less team bonding but more just de-stressing.

Ice skating was followed by a session of escape rooms, and I guess that was some good team bonding since all team members had to communicate in order the solve the puzzles together. It turned out that our team was so powerful that one of the mechanisms broke.

Somehow, I got a bit of a runny nose because of how much it was raining in Auckland (un)fortunately the cold is something that I definitely didn’t have to worry about in the upcoming days. 

NZL2 making moves on the ice rink.

The team at the escape room minus NZL5, since he was unfortunately sick.

Bridge: Pre-IMO Japan

Waking up at 4:30, I was quite excited to be finally going to the IMO. At the airport, both IMO participants and their parents were gathered at the airport. Before we went through security everyone said their final goodbyes and took a group photo. My parents were nowhere to be seen at this stage, but they gave me their best wishes before they left.

While we were waiting for our flight, we received our papers for mock 4, making me reflect on my 070. That’s when I realised how incredibly close the IMO actually was (3 days into the future) so now there is also a feeling of anxiety mixed into the excitement. Before I could process my feelings more we were on the flight.

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be on an international flight and was unclear how I would spend the next 10 hours. I found myself spending most of the first half of the flight sleeping. In the second half, however, Eric and I decided it was a good idea to start grinding geometry, so we speed ran problems in number theory and geometry. Looking back, many of us were trying to do some last-minute revision at the airport, during the flight, and even after we arrived at Japan. But I do question how much of it genuinely helped during the IMO.

Finally arriving at Japan, we went through a slightly awkward process of navigating through the airport with very limited comprehension of the Japanese characters around us. It was when I stepped out of the airport that I realise the power of the heat (it was summer in Japan after all). This oriental heat which permeates my surroundings will annoy me throughout my IMO experience.

At the end of the day, the bus took us to the APA hotel, where we will stay for the entirety of the IMO. However, since we arrived before the organisers intended us to do, we did have to change rooms the day after. The room itself was small, but pretty neat. Sleep quickly followed.

The following day was very eventful as we took the train into Tokyo. At the imperial palace we finally met the Dutch team irl, whom we immediately got along with from the shared suffering of heat as we traversed through the tracks.

The next stop was Akihabara, where it was apparent that the video entertainment industry has taken over. We went into a lot of stores where it was just packed with figurines and gacha pods — a site that is probably only witnessed there. Overall, it was an enjoyable experience in a place that’s busier than Auckland in every way possible. I’m sure NZL3 has been spending his money wisely at Akihabara.

Also, I just want to give a shoutout to the Japanese transport system — getting in and out of Tokyo was so efficient. Auckland Transport could never top this.

This is also a good time to introduce a main supporting character of the IMO: the Jane Street hub. It’s actually amazing how much effort they put into the two rooms. It was filled with free stuff — arcades, claw machines, food. This somehow relieved part of the trauma of me not being able to win the chainsaw dog Pochita from the vending machine. It was the go too place for hanging out and socialising with members from other teams (before it when it closes at 9pm). Thanks Jane Street <3

NZL2 at Narita International Airport, radiating



Chorus: The IMO

On the first day of IMO Japan gave to me

BEFORE the opening ceremony I must go shopping at the compartment store. It happens that I have lost all my stationery in the previous hotel room, meaning that if I don’t buy new ones, I would be pretty screwed at the IMO. I got 5 pens and 6 pencils so I will never run out of stuff again.

The opening ceremony was definitely a surprise — I expected to be just sat there bored as a bunch of different people make long winding speeches. We did in fact wait a long time to get started while videos played on the big screens, composed of interviews with past Olympiad participants and a sad ad by some insurance company (whose CEO turns out to be the chair of the committee hosting the IMO this year, although I’m not sure the ad is being played to the right demographic). When we finally did get started, if was with an epic Japanese drum performance. This definitely set the right mood for the following days.

However, the most enjoyable part was when a brass band performed. It featured the Evangelion theme ‘A Cruel Angel’s Thesis’ and was overall 10/10 experience, making my whole day better. I think they are called Tokyo Brass Style? — check them out!

The final part of the opening ceremony was the introduction of the teams of all countries. As a voice that seems to come from google translate reads out the names of each country, we see each team go up to the stage with their IMO guide, waving their flags. There were a significant number of teams who decided to be a bit goofy. There was one team that shouted ‘SHINZO SASAGEYO’, and another that threw gifts at the audience. My favourite was a team where its members recreated Gigachad poses on stage.

The New Zealand team went up steadily when we were called, with our guide YuQing Wu, one New Zealand flag, the mascot kiwi Rocky (based on Ross’s proposals for the names for the players in IMO 2018/4) and mascot sheep Ramsey that we got at Auckland Airport. The opening ceremony concluded shortly after.

The rest of the day was probably spent in Jane Street hub, but I was anxious to get to sleep as soon as possible so I would not be tired tomorrow. As I sink into sleep with warm air over my face, I wonder about everything that could go down in the next few days…

The opening ceremony

A specific team at the opening ceremony

Cool origami at the Jane Street Hub

On the second day of IMO Japan gave to me

After breakfast we got prepared went straight to the IMO venue. It was literally a 5 minute walk away from where we lived so no one seemed to be rushing to get there.

As I entered the exam room, I remembered what Ross said about getting into exam conditions and not talking until I leave the room. 5 minutes later I was at NZL2’s desk talking with a group of people. The atmosphere before the IMO commenced was tense, sure, but not subdued. Everyone was discussing something, maybe their hopes for the question lineup or something. There was even a group of people doing push ups — hyping themselves up for 3 maths questions?

On my desk, there was the day folder which contained everything we needed. After a prompt amount of time, the day 1 exam finally started. I opened the day folder, opened the envelop and took about the question paper. What I saw was not question 1 number theory, not question 3 algebra, but question 2 geometry, a big-block-of-text of a geometry question glaring at me. What I had dreaded was here. Ok, whatever. I spent about 1 and a half hour completing question 1. The next 3 hours was spent drawing 6 different diagrams and getting nowhere.

The guy at the microphone says, “the examination is over, put your pens down,” which marks the end of the day 1 exam. As all students do when they finish an exam, they talk about the questions. Some people were shaking their head at not being able to solve a question that seemed obvious in hindsight, some people were excited and explaining their solutions to others. The Chinese team member that sat not far in front of me seemed happy after the exam (he got full marks on that day). As I speculate it was only the people who had more success at the IMO that were louder, which made our whole team pretty overwhelmed. Maybe the IMO is as NZL2 suggested, a zero-sum game.

At this moment in time, I still had one more exam to go, yet I can’t exactly do much to improve my performance on it other than to stay healthy. At the IMO, sleep seems to be a good solution when you don’t know what to do (except during the actual exams).

The exam hall

Reason to stay away from aops after the IMO

On the third day of IMO Japan gave to me

The day 2 exam ran the same way as the day 1 exam. The only remarkable difference is that the guy at the microphone said: “Do not open the day folder until you are told to do so” at least 5 times. I have no idea who or what caused that concern.

Opening the question envelop after the start of the exam, I was jumpscared by the diagram of question 2, which was actually coloured. What about question 1? Turns out it is and inequality. I can’t believe PSC cooked another inequality, 3rd year in a row. But to be honest the question was actually not bad, and it was solved also after 1 and a half hours. Regarding question 2, I did find the construction for one part of the problem. However, it seems like the other part of the problem was not cooked in the remaining time. As the exam draws near its end, I consume my Fruit Jelly (Kyoho grapes, peaches and pineapple) and quickly write up something random for question 2 in the hope that I may squeeze some magical marks. Later I realised that binary trees caught me lacking. Question 6 was a geometry with some bizarre angle condition.

Thus was the end of the IMO exams. Again, the same reactions from people; a mixture of happy and sad with indeterminate expected value (if happiness at the IMO exam could be quantified). Chinese team member in front of me was still happy.

Today we finally met Ross, from who we learn that the Netherlands proposed both question 4 and 5. I believe the Netherlands cooked too hard on this one. Now it is time for the leaders of the team to mark our scripts. I hope no one was damaged by what I wrote down.

And if you are wondering why I’m not praising the food at the IMO, it’s because there’s little to praise. IMO committee be serving up the most NPC-looking food at the dining halls. Half of my plate every meal was salad or coleslaw (although partly by choice). Can you believe that I didn’t have sushi the entire time in Japan?

Back at the hotel we decide to build origami structures in the Jane Street hub. I fail miserably to construct a cube, and it comes out looking like it has a Euler characteristic less than 2. Meanwhile, NZL6 builds a whole tower of cubes.

View from the Huawei Hub on the 46th floor, which was scarcely populated.

On the fourth day of IMO Japan gave to me

I thought I wouldn’t like Disneyland because I didn’t like it when I was at the US. On the actual day, I felt like it was somewhat enjoyable, but actually looking back at it the experience was kind of mid. The rides made the ground shake harder than it already did, not to mention how hot it is outside. The other tiresome thing is the waiting time for the lines. How is it possible that after waiting an hour in line my net displacement is only 50 meters from my initial position. I conjecture that I waited in line longer than the time limit of the IMO in total.

Regarding the people who were with us, the Dutch team was nicely keeping our sanities at check in this extreme weather. Other than that, NZL5 was dying of heat every 5 minutes and begging for water. NZL2 on the other hand kept acting dubious around me.

The Disneyland experience ended in a water slide, which we waited more than an hour for. Let me tell you that it was the most cacophonous experience that has traversed my perception on this trip. Never again am I getting soaked in water and humiliated by the creaking of animatronic rabbits and foxes at the same time. This experience may have left a scar on NZL5.


On the fifth day of IMO Japan gave to me

Jamie and YuQing allowed to take me, along with NZL1 and NZL5 to Shibuya. The people who went to Shibuya were later described to have ‘neat handwriting’ in the IMO scripts. NZL2,3,6 probably stayed at the hotel and had an uneventful day [citation needed].

Shibuya overall was also pretty fun and a bit less nerdy compared to Akihabara. Although it was a lot of legwork, we did get to see a lot of different shops, where all my money magically disappeared. The place I was most excited about was a guitar shop — I took a billion photos in there and admired all the guitars I’m too broke to ever afford. Talking about photos, there are a lot of places where you can’t take them, including an otter café that we came across — I guess that just shows how rowdy Tokyo can get?

One downside we had was trying to find lunch. Just when I thought I could get sushi at a sushi bar we found out it was fully booked. We ended up settling for omurice from a random restaurant — still it wasn’t too shabby.

As night approaches and we return to the hotel, we get news of the medal cutoffs. 18/25/32. Wave of depression hits me and the team. I learn that my score was 16 and accept my fate. But now that there was finally closure about my final result, I can finally finally enjoy the remaining days of the IMO without care. Indeed, that’s what happened as we played many games such as werewolves and exploding kittens with the Dutch team into the night. I also blame Yanniek of the Dutch team for teaching a completely incorrect version of Mao. Fortunately, no kiwi plushies were thrown at me or NZL1 during the game.

After that I stayed a bit in NZL2/3’s room to play some fire boy and water girl with NZL2 while NZL3 sleeps with the light on. I almost fall asleep in their room before coming to my senses and returning to my own room.

‘Why’s there no sound?’ Not realising that the volume knob is turned down

Dressed up

On the sixth day of IMO Japan gave to me

Figgie is a game created by Jane street which was heavily plugged at the Jane Street hub. A more lowkey kind of gambling, where players have to trade their cards each round, is what the team played in the morning. This was apparently supposed to illustrate the stock trading that Jane Street was somehow involved with. My strategy was to sell all my red cards and buy all the black cards. I went broke in 3 rounds.

And here, after many eventful days, we have reached the closing ceremony. After the same ads play on the screens, the medal winners are announced. NZL6 walks up the stage with the NZ flag and Ramsey to receive his bronze medal. The closing ceremony quickly concludes afterwards. I find myself piggybacking NZL6 in some team photos.

The team at the closing ceremony

But the IMO just keeps giving. The closing banquet was an after party to the closing ceremony. We still won’t talk about the food, other than the addition of some soft drinks. There was yet another band performing, with one of the members apparently being a former IMO medalist, as well as featuring some members from the band in the opening ceremony. We were encouraged to start dancing to some Japanese fusion music. Many people, including me, tried to get sturdy, but I had a hard time following the moves of the actual dancers. At the end of it all NZL2 does some truly controversial acts with the New Zealand stickers.

This night everyone came together to play codenames, during which I was abandoned by my own team and adopted by the Dutch. Codenames gave way to Mao, which I rage quit after 30 minutes of consecutively gaining more cards.

I must here also acknowledge Lawson, the 24 hour convenience store that was the go-to for snacks and even lunch if we didn’t feel like eating veggie nuggets from the hotel. I wish I was within 100m of a Lawson wherever I went in Life. As for all the nights I spent staying up late Lawson certainly provided me with ‘refreshments’ to keep me awake.

Circular motion

What word could it possibly be?

On the seventh day of IMO Japan gave to me

What I meant by ‘refreshments’ was that we spent the whole night playing Mao. Early in the morning, we decide to head to the beach in order to get a view of the sunrise. Stepping into the receding waves, I find the water is actually pleasantly warm — a nice experience coupled with a pink sunrise that illuminates the horizon. I allowed my roommate NZL5 to discover the pleasant surprise of sand I the bathtub when he woke up.

At breakfast Poh-Shen-Loh pulls up at our table. He describes a systematic approach to engage more young people to get into maths, especially those in lower groups. It is impossible not to admire him.

Finally, we say goodbye to the hotel to head, once again, for the airport. The team leaders debrief us go over solutions to the IMO problems, during which a lot of emotions are expressed. The individual debriefs ended just in time before our flight arrived. And it was a short flight — one that I spent mostly sleeping after the all-nighter we pulled. Arriving at New Zealand and walking through the cold airport marks the end of the IMO for me.

Blue sky warm beach

the team making it safety back to NZ

Before I grow too tired of this 4000-word reports I will reflect on the IMO as a whole. One key theme of this trip was that everything was new to me. The whole IMO, Japan, people from other teams was something I’ve not interacted with. Yet somehow, I did not feel uneasy during any stage of the experience (except maybe buying stuff with my hopeless Japanese in Tokyo). I guess this is because at the IMO, everyone has a mutual understanding of the experiences and hard work it takes to get to here, so there is already a level of familiarity in the atmosphere of the IMO for all the participants.

The ultimate achievement for me would have been a bronze medal. I got an honourable mention instead which is a bit of a shame since I was two marks below the medal cutoff. As this is my first and last IMO, I say it was at least worth the shot I took. Although I may not have gotten an IMO medal, my trip certainly has encouraged me to keep challenging myself in maths in the unforeseeable future.


Thank you to my family and my school and many bright mathematicians for introducing me to maths Olympiad, and continually supporting me through the past 3 years leading up the to the IMO.

Thank you to Ross, Josie, Kevin and Jamie for being the adults on this trip. Thank you to Ross, Josie and Kevin for fighting for every last mark on our IMO papers. Thank you to Jamie for your care in organising our impatient minds during excursions.

Thank you to YuQing for being an amazing guide, for keeping us informed about the IMO and being a great friend during throughout the IMO.

Thanks to all the organisations that funded our trip to the IMO — your generous support has provided me with a truly memorable learning experience.

Thank you to the NZMOC for upholding the Olympiad program in New Zealand and for creating a strong cohort of mathematicians at all levels of the program.

Last but not least, thank you to NZL1, NZL2, NZL3, NZL5, NZL6 for being the most uniquely engaging team possible and shaping a well-rounded IMO experience from start to finish.

Hylke and I at the banquet

Sub optimal strategy in Figgie

Selfie with Perfect score competitor Junhwi Bae and Korean team

Kiwis and Windmills

Ok that’s it I’m too tired to write anymore.

Oh wait the mandatory questions. Please don’t revoke my sponsorship.

How has attending this event demonstrated greater knowledge of available career paths in science and technology?

Before the IMO I was unsure of, for example, majoring in maths could give career opportunities in the other areas of STEM. But seeing videos of past Olympiad medalists talk about their career experiences (and plugs from several big tech companies), I see that the ‘problem-solving’ skillset, as broad as the term is, is highly sought after in said career pathway.

How has attending this event enthused or inspired you to pursue science and technology careers?

For the most part before the IMO I wanted to pursue something that had to do with the application of maths, perhaps something to do with the practical sciences like physics or biology. However, the IMO, and notably the link question 5 to dynamic programming (??) made me think that maybe coding isn’t that bad at all. I think I’m now ever so slightly more open about learning about computer science in the future.

Has attending this event changed how you feel about science or technology?

Science and technology is fascinating and very powerful. This event reinforces my point of view.

How has attending this event and participating with like-minded students been of benefit to you?

I learned that being a high achiever doesn’t have to be a lonely process. When I started out doing maths Olympiad there wasn’t anyone around me who was on the same path. However, as I slowly got into camp and eventually the team, I’ve met more and more people who strive to be better at maths and problem solving. The IMO is basically the place to meet the best and most driven young mathematicians from the entire world. Everyone at the IMO working towards getting the best mark they can is already evidence that people all around the world try things that is beyond what is required. The moral I extracted is that perseverance and a willingness to reach out might just be the key to helping you find people who want to achieve the things you want to achieve and help you achieve it.

Now that you have had time to reflect about your experience, what have you learnt about yourself?

There are several that come to mind.

What did you enjoy about your experience?

Absolutely nothing

could describe the number of new experiences I’ve had on the trip. Normally on a holiday it’s just going out to tourist attractions to spend the day, and it may be sometimes forgettable. The IMO on the contrary gave me opportunities to learn and think, whether it’s during the actual IMO exam, talking about problems with other people or trying to solve a puzzle at the Jane Street hub. This opportunity to think also made it feel like I’ve earned trips and excursions we had during our free times. I also have to thank everyone on the New Zealand, Dutch team, and many more, who kept me company during these many adventures, small or big, during the IMO.