Wednesday 6th October 2010

Robert Zhang: IMO 2010 Kazakhstan Report

In July this year I was fortunate enough to have the amazing experience of representing New Zealand at the 51st International Mathematical Olympiad, which was held in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan.

For me, the journey had begun 18 months earlier, when I attended my first January camp. There, I was exposed to the fascinating world of Olympiad mathematics, as a competition which is hugely popular worldwide and remarkably different from that encountered in high school. From there, I was determined to practice and learn with the hope of eventually being selected for the New Zealand team. Indeed, I was quite disappointed in not being selected for the team in that year, however I gained invaluable experience through being picked for the training squad, attending numerous lectures with the rest of the squad, and completing various assignments and tests. This year, after exceeding many of my expectations in the selection exams, I was selected in the team of six to represent New Zealand at the IMO 2010.

Despite this being my first IMO, I had set myself the lofty goal of returning with a medal, which I felt, given the preparation I had put in, I was capable of achieving. On the 27th June, we departed Auckland Airport (albeit without our team member, Scott, who had encountered visa issues and would rejoin us later in Astana), and after 30 hours of travel via Dubai and Almaty, we arrived in Astana. Given the somewhat dubious view which Kazakhstan is often afforded, I was eager see what awaited us. We were greeted by two Kazakh guides and promptly driven to Hotel Daniyar, where we would stay and train with the Dutch team for a week, in the hope of acclimatising and improving our problem solving abilities. The drive to our accommodation revealed a modern and clean city, dotted with majestic architecture – unusual and unique to say the least. Apparently, Astana was chosen by President Nursultan Nazarbaev to be the new capital of Kazakhstan in 1998, and since then, significant investment has been made with the hope of transforming Astana into one of the world’s leading cities.

We spent almost the entirety of the week leading up to the IMO immersed in mathematics, whether it was mock 4½ hour exams, problem solving sessions or lectures, and these were challenging and stimulating, but at the same time very enjoyable. The Dutch team were great company, and we witnessed their jubilation as the Dutch football team recovered to knock Brazil out of the World Cup. Midway through the week, we had a break from the mathematics and toured the outskirts of the city, where we observed the many statues, monuments and fountains scattered around, saw modern buildings among dilapidated Soviet-style apartments, and we took time out to relax at a park. Other free time which we had during the week was spent playing games with the Dutch and exploring the area around our hotel, where we discovered a small marketplace. Though the lack of English spoken made it difficult to communicate (the main languages spoken being Kazakh and Russian), some of the team improvised with crudely drawn pictures. The week passed quickly by and soon it was time for the IMO proper to begin.

The opening days of the competition leading up to the tests were eventful but not entirely ideal. The first night was spent at the luxurious Hotel Duman, where our team and two others (eight of us) were placed in a double room, along with wooden slats which were to serve as our beds for the night. The Opening Ceremony was held the next day, following which we embarked on a 5-6 hour bus ride spanning 250km to the ‘Island of Children’s Dreams’. Otherwise known as Baldauren, this was where the contest was to be held, and was located in an idyllic natural setting. Unfortunately for us the long bus ride was not idyllic, and, having witnessed the endless plains of Kazakhstan, we arrived at Baldauren at around 9:30pm. It was not until after midnight that we slept, mindful of the exam the next day. Our tiredness was compounded when the next morning, at precisely 6:30am, we were awoken to the loud music of ‘Peer Gynt’ followed by a loud rendition of the ‘IMO Hymn’. Following forceful protests from some other contestants, the music was turned off. Sleep-deprived, tired and still a bit dizzy from the long bus journey, I entered the exam room, hoping for the best.

My exam room (source: IMO 2010 organisers).

My exam room (source: IMO 2010 organisers).

The exams themselves were all that I could have hoped for. On each of two days, we sat a 4 ½ hour examination of 3 questions, designed to challenge even the most capable mathematicians. On the first day, I was initially dismayed when confronted by the first question, a functional equation, having never solved one in a competition before. Therefore, I was very pleased when I was able to produce a solution within the first hour or so. This left plenty of time to attack the second question, although it was slightly disappointing not to make too much progress on it. The second day was much like the first – I was able to come up with a full proof for the first question, a geometry one, within the first few hours but was unable to make too much progress into Q5, which was a nasty Combinatorics question. I was ecstatic when one of my teammates announced that I had received 16 points, having scraped partial marks on the 2nd and 5th questions. Furthermore, our team had performed exceptionally well, Malcolm and Tom scoring 22 and 21 respectively, myself, Stephen and Scotty scoring 16, and Ed scoring 15 points. It’s fair to say there were scenes of uninhibited jubilation in hearing the medal cut-offs of 15 for a bronze medal and 21 for a silver medal, as this meant that the entire NZ team had received medals for the first time. The team also ranked 29th in the world – in the top 30% of countries – which is the highest ranking New Zealand has ever had at the IMO.

A concert at Baldauren.

A concert at Baldauren.

During the days following the examinations, we were treated to various excursions, performances and concerts, and we learnt more about the Kazakh culture and history and their language. While the excursions were at times tiring due to the excessive travel times, they were still fascinating and a lot of fun, and included visits to a zoo and museum in Borovoe (which I’m told is the next Las Vegas) and viewing archaeological sites located deep within the tranquil plains. We also witnessed the Kazakh people’s love for performance, as we were treated to two concerts in the town of Kokshetau and at Baldauren, where we witnessed traditional music and dancing mixed in with a more modern flavour. There was also plenty of time to spend time with the other contestants from the other countries, and the nights were spent playing games, ranging from the ubiquitous Mafia to a crudely organised game of Capture the Flag. One of the highlights of my stay at Baldauren was an outdoor disco, where us unruly mathematicians threw away our inhibitions and displayed our conventional and more unusual dance moves. I must also mention that the male to female ratio at the IMO this year was 10:1 – clearly the IMO is significantly male dominated, and hopefully this ratio will lessen in further years – although almost all the guides this year were female. Our time at Baldauren was concluded early on the morning of Monday 11th July, as World Cup fever engulfed us, and we witnessed the ecstasy of the Spanish fans as Spain scored the late winner in the FIFA World Cup final.

The team with our guide, Laura, during an excursion in the forest.

The team with our guide, Laura, during an excursion in the forest.

The Bayterek Tower and United Buddy Bears exhibition.

The Bayterek Tower and United Buddy Bears exhibition.

On our return to Astana, we had a brief excursion into the Astana city centre, where first we viewed the United Buddy Bears exhibition, and then finally had the chance to travel up the centrepiece of Astana – the Bayterek Tower. This lollipop-shaped monument offers spectacular views across the entire city, and also features a gilded handprint of President Nazarbaev, which we were told to place our hand on and make a wish. It had become blindingly clear to us that President Nursultan Nazarbaev had a huge influence in this city – an oligarch whose decisions were always honoured. The IMO concluded with the Closing Ceremony which was again held at the majestic Palace of Independence. There we were presented with our medals; which was a proud moment not only for me, but for the entire team. After the farewell banquet, we said our goodbyes to the many of the other teams, as well as to our guide, Laura, with whom we had become such good friends. After a sleepless but fun-filled night, it was time for us to leave. The IMO had come to an end.

From left, Stephen, Scotty, Tom, Malcolm, Ed and Robert (source: Chris Tuffley).

From left, Stephen, Scotty, Tom, Malcolm, Ed and Robert (source: Chris Tuffley).

This trip was a truly life-changing experience; the memories from it will stay with me forever. Having not been widely travelled myself, the IMO experience was a huge eye-opener for me – I learnt about the culture and people of Kazakhstan, made many friendships with amazing people from all over the globe, and realised that there are countless opportunities available for students, both in New Zealand and internationally. Representing NZ has been a huge honour, and the team performing with such distinction was incredibly rewarding for all of us. The mathematics involved has been great fun to learn and develop, and it has been very rewarding to see a goal, which I set years ago, being realised. I would certainly recommend any student who has a passion and love for mathematics, who is longing for a challenge (given that school mathematics may not always be challenging or stimulating) to get involved in the mathematical Olympiad programme – the IMO trip is worth it in itself. Thanks and appreciation must go to our team leaders Chris and Ilya, to our team managers, May and Alan, as well as all those who have generously given their time in supporting and training not only the NZ team, but all of the students involved in the Olympiad programme. I am also very grateful to my parents and the Royal Society of New Zealand for their continued support and assistance in funding.

My journey in Olympiad mathematics is not over yet, and I hope that I will have the opportunity to represent NZ at the IMO next year in Amsterdam. Hopefully it will be yet another enjoyable and successful year!