Breaking our Olympiad Records

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New Zealand’s International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) team this year in Kazakhstan broke three New Zealand records.


This was the first IMO in which all team members won medals, and the first with two silvers. Silver medallists were Malcolm Granville and Tom Yan (Auckland Grammar School), with bronze medallists Stephen Mackereth, (King’s College), Yuan Wang (Hillcrest High School), Robert Zhang (Au
ckland Grammar) and Sicong Zhang (Auckland International College). New Zealand also achieved its highest ever international ranking, 29th out of 97 countries.

Granville says it was a combination of an unusually strong team, well-suited questions, and studying together. Team leader Dr Chris Tuffley, from Massey University in Palmerston North, thought members’ own study and fortnightly Auckland training sessions helped, as did as did the extra experience from competitions during team selection.

Professor Ivan Reilly, chair of the NZ Mathematical Olympiad Committee (MOC) since 1986, credits the Auckland sessions by Arkadii Slinko and PhD students and the gradual improvement among the top five percent of maths students.

While there were no girls in this year’s team, Reilly says New Zealand has sent more girls to the IMO than any other country. “We’ve had some outstanding girls in the team. In 1991, when I was leader, Diane Maclagan was the third highest-achieving girl at the Olympiad.” She is now an Associate Professor at the Mathematics Institute at the University of Warwick.

“Medallists often get offered scholarships by New Zealand universities, but those who do very well get offers from overseas, where they know that these kids don’t have the support available in other countries.”

The competition is not a level playing field, says Reilly. “In China they are trained for six months ahead of the Olympiad, and it’s unthinkable that they don’t win a medal! My friends who lead other teams ask ‘How come you do so well, when you have only four million people?’”

He has just marked 200 papers submitted by candidates for the MOC’s annual January maths camp. The best 24 get a week of maths in Christchurch, and compete for a squad of 12 who do more training. From them, next year’s IMO team will be chosen.

Contestants must be under 20 and not be registered in any tertiary institution. They sit two exams, each with three questions and each lasting over four hours, with no calculators allowed. Each problem is worth seven points, so a perfect score is 42. Problems are chosen from secondary school level geometry, number theory, algebra
and combinatorics.

Granville says he likes the way that IMO problems “can be incredibly difficult but only involve elementary maths. I learned a lot of new maths that I wouldn’t have been exposed to at school, made a lot of connections from other countries, and met lots of New Zealanders who are really interested in mathematics.” He hopes to study maths at university in 2011.

Tuffley competed in 1990 in China, where he won a bronze medal, and in 1991 in Sweden. “There were 56 countries when I first went, now there are close to 100. We tried to meet a lot of the different teams after the competition and stayed up far too late.” 

“Going to the IMO made a big difference to me; it made me see mathematics as a really fun and exciting thing to do. Four of us went those two years in a row and got close; all four went into maths at university.”

Tuffley enjoyed seeing the other side of the IMO as a leader. Country leaders make up the IMO Jury, which is separated from the students and forbidden to communicate with them until after
the competition. The Jury decides on the final questions, translations and marking schedules before competition starts. Team leaders then meet the host country’s six co-ordinating (marking) committees, one for each question, to agree on their team’s marks. The Jury then decides the cut-off points for medals.

Tuffley hopes to lead New Zealand’s 2011 team to the Netherlands and 2012 team to Argentina.
Jenny Rankine

See also
International Mathematical Olympiad
Hard Problems movie