Eric Liang: IMO 2023 Report
This year I had the honor of representing New Zealand in the 64th International Maths Olympiad held in Chiba, Japan.
And it was fun, I guess.
Pre IMO training – 30th June to 4th July
About a week before departure to Japan, the NZIMO team gathered for a five-day non-residential camp in Auckland University consisting of four days for mocks and 1 day for a group bonding session ie. excursion.
On the first day, we were briefed on how the competition would be run.
“In the case of an emergency remember to raise the ‘exit’ card before dashing out of the room” (slightly paraphrased version of what Ross told us)
For context, during the exam there are only 5 different things we are allowed to “say”. Each of these events are written down on a card which we raise to alert the invigilators of what we want to do. One of such cards is the ‘exit’ card which allows us to leave the exam early (which is almost never used).
During each of the Mock days, we had to sit a Mock IMO early in the morning. For me the mocks went well as I somehow managed to achieve a non-zero score each mock.
This was then followed by us collectively making some mark schemes (and trying to sabotage each other’s marks) before marking each other’s scripts. During the marking process, I was lucky enough to be graced with one of the most creative geometry solutions I have ever seen – a coordinate bash courtesy of Brian – which after many minutes of pain and suffering I finally got through and gave him a 7 (congrats!).
On the third day of the training camp, we had a group excursion which consisted of going ice skating then followed by escape rooms. I must say that I am a PrOdIGy at ice skating after managing a narrow escape from death when attempting to race James around the track (I was the one that caused the crash).
This was then followed by a visit to the escape rooms where we somehow managed to break one of the mechanisms resulting in the staff narrowly finishing faster than us (we would’ve won otherwise trust).
We then had two more days of mocks before we departed to Japan.
Pre IMO in Japan
The flight to Japan proved to be quite the rocky experience, with the seatbelt sign being on for almost the entire flight. Due to the sus piloting of the plane, I wasn’t able to get more than 2 hrs of sleep, so I resigned myself to grind some geometry problems with Michael. Finally landing in Japan, we met with Jamie who flew to Japan earlier and then took a bus to our accommodation where we will be staying for the rest of the trip. As we arrived a day earlier than we were supposed to, we had to change rooms the day after.
Arriving at our room, I explored some of the channels that Japanese television had to offer before catching up with all the missed sleep from the plane ride.
The next day, we met up with the Dutch team at the imperial palace. Each member of the Dutch team was at least a head taller than each of the members of the NZ team. Perhaps symbolic of how each member of the Dutch team managed to beat the New Zealand team by 1 award. (1 Silver and 5 Bronzes to our 1 Bronze and 5 Honorable mentions).
We then departed to Akihabara after walking around the imperial palace.
After consuming one of the most iconic dishes of Japan – Ramen – we quickly found ourselves wandering around the streets enjoying the rich anime culture. Unfortunately, that day we only had around 40 minutes in Akihabara before we were required to go back to check into our new rooms in the hotel, so we ended up spending most of our time in the Arcade. I read somewhere that the claw machines were as rigged in Japan, so I spent the rest of our time in Akihabara trying to win a plushie before running out of coins :( bit of a skill issue.
The opening ceremony was held the following day which opened with a cool Japanese drum performance. Following a slew of speeches was the highlight of the ceremony for me – a brass band which played the opening of Neon Genesis Evangelion “A Cruel Angels Thesis”.
This was then followed by an introduction of each country on stage where we proudly hoisted our two mascots Ramsey and Rockey (a sheep and a kiwi) on the stage.
In the evening, Jerry and I decided to go to the public baths together, which was a good way to relax the day before the competition.
Day 1 – 8th July
The first day of the IMO. I woke up early in the morning and prayed for geometry to be problem 2. I guess my prayers were heard, however, problem 2 wasn’t as easy as I expected.
We arrived in the exam hall 30 minutes before the exam started, so I just walked around trying to shake off the nerves of the first exam.
Question 1: Number theory. This question was relatively easy: After trying a few small cases I correctly conjectured the answer was only numbers n in the form n = pn where p is a prime works and then swiftly proved it by contradiction.
Question 2: I struggled for 4 hours even though geometry is supposedly my best topic. I angle chased and got really close to a solution but since I was missing a crucial step, so I only got 1 mark.
Question 3: I barely attempted this question at all.
Day 1 scores: 710
“I swear the ground was shaking” – Me after the exam trying to cope for why I didn’t solve a geometry problem 2.
“Surely half your team swept” – our Thailand friend after coming out of the exam and coincidentally meeting us on his way to lunch.
“P3 was trivial.” – some random Canadian dude.
That night, after grieving for my failure to solve a geometry problem 2, I went down to help Brian with the origami pyramid soon to be turned tetrahedron.
Day 2 – 9th July
Walking into day 2, I was honestly feeling pretty resigned. I knew to have a chance at bronze I’d have to solve at least 1 question today and make significant progress on another. However, I also knew that problem 4 and problem 5 would be algebra and combi in some order – my two worst topics.
Walking into the exam hall 30 minutes early, there were people having a pushup competition right in the middle of the exam hall – this was funny, I guess.
Question 4: After staring at this question for a good hour wondering what the question actually asked us to prove, I realized I missed a crucial point in the question – that an was supposed to be a sequence of integers. Realizing this I quickly solved the question leaving 3 hours left for the rest of the paper.
Question 5: Combi, my worst enemy, I would have to overcome this hurdle if I wanted to have any chance of getting a bronze. However, I conjectured the wrong answer twice before finally getting the right answer. But this left me with barely any time to actually prove the answer was always achievable. So that left me with only 2 marks.
Question 6: I tried this question then after realizing the sheer number of circles that had to be drawn, I gave up.
Day 2 scores: 720
Thus, giving me a grand total of 17 marks.
It wasn’t until 2 days later that I heard the news that I was 1 mark off bronze.
Disneyland – 10th July
On the first excursion day we went to Disneyland. Surprisingly, even though we went during work hours during a school day there was still a very long queue. For no reason whatsoever I just want to mention that it’s fortunate that the Japanese pronunciation for toilet is very close to the English pronunciation. Thankfully, we were allowed to cut back in line with our group so in the end it was a win for me.
Disneyland was fun. We went around with the Dutch team the entire day. All the big attractions had a 40+ minute queue so we only went on a few rides. The highlight of the day was coercing Brian to go on a ride with us even though he is deathly afraid of heights.
Told Jamie we’d meet him at 4 but then took a little detour to go on the merry go round and somehow managed to drag our meeting time out to 5:30.
Went back to the hotel to have dinner and sleep.
Our own excursion - 11th July
Following the Disneyland excursion, Brian Jerry and I told Jamie that we’d hang out in the Jane Street Hub and the Arcade/mall close to the hotel.
Did that the entire day, bought a couple figurines for friends (saw some sus figurines).
Closing Ceremony – 12th July
In the morning we decided to go to the Jane Street hub to play a game they invented to teach people about trading (it was basically gambling).
Soon it was time to go to the closing ceremony. As we walked in, I was once again reminded of how close I was to getting a medal but there was no point crying about the past.
Just like the opening ceremony, there were some speeches and then the names of the medal winners appeared on the big screen as they walked on stage to be presented their medals.
After the ceremony, there was an afterparty where we attempted to summon the devil with some Japanese fusion music.
We spent the rest of the night playing codenames and Mao.
Honestly it was a miracle that I made it to the airport alive. I had a total of 4 hours of sleep over the past 2 days and was chugging coffee to try stay awake. The plane ride back was smoother. Highlight of the plane flight back: I actually beat the game 2048.
How has attending this event demonstrated greater knowledge of available career paths in science and technology?
Seeing people with similar but different careers has expanded my knowledge of available career paths that branch from maths. It was surprising to me that a lot of the volunteers at the event had a background in math Olympiad but were working in fields such as finance and computer science which has really shown me what maths is capable of. Math Olympiad isn’t just about the number of theorems and nukes that you remember. But rather about the problem-solving mindset that comes with solving the problems in the test. This is perhaps what makes Maths Olympiad students so desirable in many fields which has shown me that there are many more career paths than just mathematics available.
How has attending this event enthused or inspired you to pursue science and technology careers?
Even before the IMO, I was already interested in pursuing a science or technology career. Meeting all the cool and quirky mathematics students around the world as well as talking to team leaders/deputies from other countries and people working for Jane Street has definitely helped me to reaffirm my choice to pursue a STEM career.
Has attending this event changed how you feel about science or technology?
Not really. I’ve always had an interest in science and technology. It’s nice to see how this can bring people together though.
How has attending this event and participating with like-minded students been of benefit to you?
I’ve learnt many things from participating in this event. Seeing all the best mathematicians from all around the world gathered at one place all striving to score the highest they can has motivated me to become a better mathematician myself. Although I may be part of the top 6 students in NZ for mathematics, attending this event has made me realize that the world is a much bigger place than I originally thought. I’ve met people that are wayyy smarter than I am which is truly a humbling experience. Meeting like-minded people has also made the process of studying math’s more enjoyable – being able to share our favorite problems/theorems with each other.
Now that you have had time to reflect about your experience, what have you learnt about yourself?
Firstly, I learnt that I cared more about mathematics than I thought. The months leading up to the competition were hectic to say the least, with many hours spent grinding out problems and memorizing theorems. I never knew I could be so dedicated, and I hope this interest in pursuing knowledge doesn’t die out in the future.
I also discovered that I was way more social than I thought I was. Coming into the event, I was mostly thinking about hanging out with friends I met from last year and secluding myself in my room to cram. However, I found myself actively making new friends (and asking them to come to the public baths with me) which is enlightening. Maybe I won’t become a social recluse in the future.
Finally, I learnt that I really do suck at geometry. As a self-proclaimed geometry one-trick I thought for sure that I would be able to solve at least one geometry problem in the test. However, after the tragedy that was p2 I realized that maybe I overestimated my abilities too much. This has shown me how I still have room to improve and that I shouldn’t get too complacent.
What did you enjoy about your experience?
The highlight of the trip was definitely
shopping for anime figurines making new friends from around the world.
A wise man once said, “the real medals are the friends we’ve made along the way”. While the main attraction of this trip was undeniably the competition itself, the friends and memories I’ve made during this trip will last longer than the 2 days of the competition.