Saturday 20th December 2008

Thomas Li: IMO 2008 Spain Report

1. Arriving in Auckland

My journey started when I went to Auckland on 2nd/July/2008. I was so excited and very sure I would enjoy this trip. Everything went fine along the first flight from Christchurch to Auckland. I met Heather (our deputy leader) at the bus stop and settled in Grafton Resident Hall (part of Auckland University), room 605, which besides one of my friend Ronald. This room had a very nice view of the outside: I could see the top of One Tree Hill Domain on the right, and some distance old trees in the centre. On the left, there were some buildings which unfortunately blocked my view of the sea.

Grafton Hall.  (Source:  Thomas Li)

Grafton Hall. (Source: Thomas Li)

The Grafton Hall had a lot of facilities: a pool table and a table tennis table, along with the SKY TV and a computer room. My favourite activity at Grafton Hall was the pool: it is such a good sport to play with people you just meet. I played a lot of pool and some table tennis with Ronald; he seemed to be better than me. Anyway we had a lot of fun. By the way, the food in Grafton Hall is wonderful; there are some much options for each meal. I had toast or cereal for breakfast, there were over 15 options. For lunch, for the convenience, I usually packed my own lunch. For diner, there were 2 to 3 different and good dinners to choose. I just totally loved it.

During my stay in Auckland, the weather has never been good for a whole day. It always rained and then stopped. The good thing was the rain tended to stop when I was going outside. Therefore, I did a lot of exploring around Auckland. I went Queen St twice, and enjoyed the busy streets. Also, I went to Albert Park a few times; just relax myself after the maths training.

Lectures in Auckland.  (Source:  Thomas Li)

Lectures in Auckland. (Source: Thomas Li)

It was a maths trip, so maths was always the first priority. From 3rd/July and the next two days, we had a training camp in University of Auckland. In the morning, it was 3 hours problem session to tackle 3 problems with IMO question 1 difficulty. I found it to be the right level of difficulty for me, and found it very enjoyable and rewarding after solving them. In each of the afternoons, we first went over the problem, then a few lectures on some of the interesting maths topics.

2. Flying to Madrid

6 July

It was time for the NZ IMO team to travel to Madrid, Spain. We flied to Los Angles (USA) first, then to Frankfurt (Germany), and finally to Madrid. Jed’s dad delivered me to the airport. Everyone in our team got there with 3 hours to spare. We checked in, got our ticket, and got on the plane at 7 pm. We were flying with Air New Zealand; they provided us with a wonderful service. There was a TV in front of each one of us, there were games, movies and TV shows. I watched 2 movies, the best one was “21”. When we got to LA, we had to go through some of the toughest security checks. Luckily we were from New Zealand, they took easy on us. We got on the next flight just in time. When we got to Frankfurt, we had 2 hours to spend, I went to buy some post cards and some Germany Chocolate, and they tasted so well.

7 July

“Yes, we are in Madrid. No, my luggage is lost in LA.”

It turned out they were dropped in LA, and it would arrive one day late.

3. Training with the Dutch

Our training started in the evening. We were going to train together with the Dutchs. Even though English was not their first language, but they could speak it well enough for maths.

Spanish living pattern is slightly different from New Zealand. Their dinner is very late, around 9 pm. Their lunch is late as well, which is the most important meal of the day. Since it is summer there, there are so many different fruits available there, which I have not seen in New Zealand before. Water melon is much fresher and cheaper here. Spanish bread is very hard, our team member decide to call it “brick”. It is uneatable without having it with water or juice. Some of the Dutch team members even played soccer with this type of bread.

8 July

From 8th/July and the following 5 days, everyday was a hard training day. We got up at 8am and had breakfast. The morning problem session ran from 9am to 1:30pm. Then it was one hour for lunch, and half an hour break. From 3 to 4 pm, it was discussion about the problems, and then it followed one hour of training session in our own team. Half an hour break, then it was a 3 hour lecture that went to 8:30pm, some time even 9pm. Then it was dinner, and went to sleep. Even though it was a bit tough, I learnt a lot of mathematical skill that could be used for this IMO, and also for the rest of my life.

Mock exam in Madrid.  (Source:  Heather Macbeth)

Mock exam in Madrid. (Source: Heather Macbeth)

11 July

11th of July was a bit of an exception: we had a day not doing maths. We went to central Madrid (Sol). On that day, we took the subway about 9 times, it was so cool. Subway is a much faster transportation system. How could people in a large city live without it? When we were in central Madrid, we went to the amazing Royal Palace with two beautiful cathedrals: one small restaurant and one royal museum, to take 45 minutes boat riding and then 1 hour wandering in the park. It made me feel that Spain was a paradise to live in.

12-13 July

We got along with the Netherlands team really well. During our afternoon break on the 12th, we played soccer. Of course, we got beaten, but not by much. The sad thing was Jed injured his right foot, because of not wearing shoes, and a sharp object went in. Unlucky things tended to come in a bunch. On 13th, when I was having a shower, my glasses broken in the shower room, and one leg of the frame went down the drain.

4. Living in IMO Resident Hall

14 July

The real IMO started on 14th. We checked out from our training camp and moved to our IMO resident hall. We met so many contestants from all parts of the world: Malaysia, Germany, Canada and so on. I just thought it would be an unforgettable 8 days living here. In the afternoon, I went to the local shopping mall with our guide Juan and our team manager May. I found out that everything in Madrid market was on special: from clothing to footwear. You could name it, they got it on sale. I went to an “Optica” shop, where I got my glasses reframed for €55 and the reframing was done in an hour, much cheaper and faster than I expected.

15 July

The next day morning, the Opening Ceremony started. Sadly, only one contestant from each country can cross the stage. So I had given up my chance to Ben. In this ceremony, the speaker spoke in English and Spanish alternatively. All speeches were about the importance of mathematics, being glad to have you here and should keep working hard in maths. Then the show started. It was a very good performance. The best one was the 2 female performers dance on the 2 vertical cloths. After the ceremony, we had a lunch in the park with all the contestants from 96 countries. It was amazing to communicate with people from all parts of the globe. I talked and took photos with contestants over 40 countries.

2008 New Zealand and Australian IMO teams pose.  (Source:  Thomas Li)

2008 New Zealand and Australian IMO teams pose. (Source: Thomas Li)

In the afternoon, I went to swim with 2 guides (NZ and Germany), So-Young, Tom and Jed. Well it was cool to cool you down a bit in a temperature of 35 ˚C. The pool also have water jet at the side, it was so relaxing just in the pool. After that I had a nap, and then had a dinner. The following day was the first day of the competition; I was nervous and excited at the same time. I was looking forward to it.

5. The Contest

16 July

16th was the first contest day. I was nervous as everyone else. The test centre was in a university in Madrid with a very big room that would fit every contestant. The table and the chair were not as comfortable as expected. The table was in an angle of about 25 degrees which was slippery so that my paper kept slipping down. The chair was a high stool which was really not comfortable for four and half hours. Beside that, everything was fine. We were given muesli bars and mineral water.

Contest room.  (Source:  Thomas Li)

Contest room. (Source: Thomas Li)

The exam started. After reading all the problems, I spent one and half hours in problem one, but no luck. Then I used one hour in question 2 to do some expansion of the bracket for the inequality and to try some substitution which helped me to find one solution for the equality. Then I spent the rest of my time in question 1, no luck until the last 20 minutes. At last I simplified the problem into a very simple algebra question, but with one calculation error.

17th of July

Day two of the contest, before it started, I was walking in the contest room. I saw a USA contestant had prepared everything to the last detail. His pencil, pen, ruler, protractor were placed on the table in order. So prepared and planned! Then the contest started. I looked at question 4, which is a functional equation. My brain went to blank because I have only done 2 functional equations in the last 6 months. I made some progress in question 4, but it was not enough to solve it. Therefore I started to pray for inspiration. Then luck went my way in question 5. After reading question 5, I got two ideas: one was a normal idea to find M and N individually then divided it to find N/M and the other was to find the ratio of N/M straight away. I tried the first idea which turned out to be too hard. When I tried the second idea, amazingly it worked perfectly. Everything just fitted together so nicely. Near the end, I tried question 6 and 4 again, and got no luck. Soon the contest was over.

After the contest, members of all the teams had a dinner party in a park, where a band was playing. We had lots of fun time during the party: we were dancing, clapping and jumping around. It was fantastic!

6. The Excursions and Free Time

18th of July

Our excursion started. We went to Segovia and Escorial.

Segovia is an old Spanish town, with a lot of historical buildings and aged trees. There were a lot of hard walk for this trip, but it’s worth it because of the good view. It’s a very lovely place. Everyone was lost in the wonderful colour and brilliant scenery. We had seen the water bridge: the way Spanish people transport water near the centre of Segovia. This was followed by a 30 minutes uphill walk to the top the mountain with a palace on it. Unfortunately we couldn’t go in, but it was significant on the outside. It was the most amazing palace I had ever seen.

Water bridge in Segovia.  (Source:  Thomas Li)

Water bridge in Segovia. (Source: Thomas Li)

Then we went to Escorial to visit the monastery. This monastery is one of the historical places in Spain, which got lots of beautiful paintings to show the history of Spain.

Still in Escorial, we went to swimming. It was so cool and relaxed to swim in a hot weather. We also played the IMO soccer tournament. We were paired up with Coast Rica (the best team), but we still lost. Also, we played basketball with other teams. Well it was fun to be mixed with other team. The only thing that went wrong was that the dinner queue was a bit long: it took us nearly an hour to get our dinner.

19 July

In the morning of 19th/July was activity day. We worked with our team members in a group of 6 people. There were 6 events: World map, Diana (darts), Sudoku, Sack racing, Memory and Tectonic plate (making balloon into shape). Our team did really well in Sudoku and World map thanks to everyone in our team. But we were late for the Memory game and did really poor. However the Sack race was the most interesting game. Four people (Everyone except Tom and So-young) were in a sack trying to jump forward. We nearly cross the finish line in time. But the fun thing was that we fall lot of times.

In the afternoon, Heather, Ben, Dr Albert and I went to a modern art museum when the rest of the team came back to the resident hall. (The sad thing was that Jed’s wallet got stolen on the way back.) Those modern arts were not only beautiful, but also imaginary. There were a lot of fascinating works of art from different countries. It was one of the best museums that I have been to. Out of museum, we had some ice-cream. I had the mint-chocolate biscuit, which is chewy and indulgent.

In the evening, we had a dinner party at CM Aquinas. We had lots of fun during the party. We talked to most of the contestants from the Commonwealth countries, especially our neighbour Aussies.

In the same day, we found out what mark we got. Ben got the highest mark in our team which is 14. We all hoped that was good enough for a bronze, but it seemed unlikely for this IMO.

20 July

In the morning of 20th of July, we had some free time, which was seldom in IMO. We played Hearts (a card game) together. In the afternoon, we went to Toledo, a town. At first, we had a tour on bus, after that we tackled it by foot. Toledo is one of the oldest towns in Spain, which is over 2000 years old. We had seen a lot of different historical places.

Tower, Toledo.  (Source:  Thomas Li)

Tower, Toledo. (Source: Thomas Li)

Then, more bad news came: my camera’s LCD was broken, and Tom broke his IPOD screen.

21 July

Today was our second last day in Spain, but also the day for the closing ceremony of IMO. Surely I had a great time, and the time was going so fast. It’s the closing ceremony in the afternoon, followed by a farewell dinner. In the morning, we bought some present for Juan (our guide), and some souvenirs for ourselves. We had a fun time wondering around Sol (central area of Madrid). We went on the subway for 2 last times. I still thought it is a very cool transport. Sol is much busier than any NZ city centre. There were a lot of people passing around you. It’s a fantastic experience to be in the flow of people.

7. Coming Home

22 July

Today was our last day in Spain, and we would be in New Zealand very soon. After having a breakfast at the resident hall, we left for the airport. At the airport, we said: “Good bye” to Juan, also gave him our team mascot “Kiwi bird” and some other present our team prepared to show our thankfulness. We checked our bags in, and had a sandwich at the airport café. Still thinking about the wonderful time that I and all my team members had in the last few weeks, the trip was nearly over. I had another look at the busy airport terminals and some of the other airplane takeoff before boarding our plane. I was thinking that I would be in New Zealand in 30 hours, and 4 hours more I would be beside my parents, or even have a rest at home.

Then our plane took off, carrying all of our team members on board with happy memories. We flied to Munich, then Hong Kong, then Auckland, and finally I got to my town Christchurch. We had a stop over in Hong Kong for 3 hours. On the way back, I had a few sleeps. When I was awake, I was still thinking about the fun time that I had in this IMO and thinking about the wonderful problems that I had solved.

24 July

“The plane is about to land,” the Captain said: “Welcome to Christchurch.” I went and picked up my luggage, and my parents were already waiting for me. I went home, and went to rest.

When I woke up at home, I thought about the things I learnt in this IMO. Firstly, never give up and keep your confidence: if I had given up after the first day of IMO, I would only get one point. Secondly, prepare everything you can: I was inspired by the USA contestant 2.

IMO is a really good program for improving my maths skill, as well as make me become passionate about this fun and enjoyable subject.


I would like to thank my parents for their mental and financial support during my study in Maths.

I am grateful to all the IMO and other maths teachers who made this trip possible. Special thanks to Dr Albert (NZIMO team leader), Heather Macbeth (NZIMO team deputy leader) and May (NZIMO team manager) for their help during this trip.  I wish to express my thanks to Alan Parris, Mr. Robert Long and Mr. Brian Wood for their helping with IMO training.

Thanks all the sponsors, especially to the Royal Society of New Zealand for their funding.