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International Mathematical Olympiad

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The logo of the International Mathematical Olympiad.

The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) is an annual six-problem, 42-point mathematical olympiad for pre-collegiate students and is the oldest of the International Science Olympiads.[1] The first IMO was held in Romania in 1959. It has since been held annually, except in 1980. About 100 countries send teams of up to six students,[2] plus one team leader, one deputy leader, and observers.[3]

The content ranges from precalculus problems that are extremely difficult to problems on branches of mathematics not conventionally covered at school and often not at university level either, such as projective and complex geometry, functional equations and well-grounded number theory, of which extensive knowledge of theorems is required. Calculus, though allowed in solutions, is never required, as there is a principle at play that anyone with a basic understanding of mathematics should understand the problems, even if the solutions require a great deal more knowledge. Supporters of this principle claim that this allows more universality and creates an incentive to find elegant, deceptively simple-looking problems which nevertheless require a certain level of ingenuity.

The selection process differs by country, but it often consists of a series of tests which admit fewer students at each progressing test. Awards are given to a top percentage of the individual contestants. Teams are not officially recognized—all scores are given only to individual contestants, but team scoring is unofficially compared more so than individual scores.[4] Contestants must be under the age of 20 and must not be registered at any tertiary institution. Subject to these conditions, an individual may participate any number of times in the IMO.[5]


The first IMO was held in Romania in 1959. Since then it has been held every year except 1980. That year, it was cancelled due to internal strife in Mongolia.[6] It was initially founded for eastern European countries participating in the Warsaw Pact, under the Soviet bloc of influence, but eventually other countries participated as well.[2] Because of this eastern origin, the earlier IMOs were hosted only in eastern European countries, and gradually spread to other nations.[7]

Sources differ about the cities hosting some of the early IMOs. This may be partly because leaders are generally housed well away from the students, and partly because after the competition the students did not always stay based in one city for the rest of the IMO. The exact dates cited may also differ, because of leaders arriving before the students, and at more recent IMOs the IMO Advisory Board arriving before the leaders.[8]

Several students, such as Zhuoqun Alex Song, Teodor von Burg, Lisa Sauermann, and Christian Reiher have performed exceptionally well on the IMO, scoring multiple gold medals. Others, such as Grigory Margulis, Jean-Christophe Yoccoz, Laurent Lafforgue, Stanislav Smirnov, Terence Tao, Sucharit Sarkar, Grigori Perelman, Ngô Bảo Châu and Maryam Mirzakhani have gone on to become notable mathematicians. Several former participants have won awards such as the Fields medal.[9]

In January 2011, Google gave €1 million to the International Mathematical Olympiad organization. The donation will help the organization cover the costs of the next five global events (2011–2015).[10]

Scoring and format

The paper consists of six problems, with each problem being worth seven points, the total score thus being 42 points. No calculators are allowed. The examination is held over two consecutive days; the contestants have four-and-a-half hours to solve three problems per day. The problems chosen are from various areas of secondary school mathematics, broadly classifiable as geometry, number theory, algebra, and combinatorics. They require no knowledge of higher mathematics such as calculus and analysis, and solutions are often short and elementary. However, they are usually disguised so as to make the process of finding the solutions difficult. Prominently featured are algebraic inequalities, complex numbers, and construction-oriented geometrical problems, though in recent years the latter has not been as popular as before.[11]

Each participating country, other than the host country, may submit suggested problems to a Problem Selection Committee provided by the host country, which reduces the submitted problems to a shortlist. The team leaders arrive at the IMO a few days in advance of the contestants and form the IMO Jury which is responsible for all the formal decisions relating to the contest, starting with selecting the six problems from the shortlist. The Jury aims to select the problems so that the order in increasing difficulty is Q1, Q4, Q2, Q5, Q3 and Q6. As the leaders know the problems in advance of the contestants, they are kept strictly separated and observed.[12]

Each country's marks are agreed between that country's leader and deputy leader and coordinators provided by the host country (the leader of the team whose country submitted the problem in the case of the marks of the host country), subject to the decisions of the chief coordinator and ultimately a jury if any disputes cannot be resolved.[13]

Selection process

A stage in the process of solving a problem1 from the AIME, part of the US's selection process.

The selection process for the IMO varies greatly by country. In some countries, especially those in east Asia, the selection process involves several difficult tests of a difficulty comparable to the IMO itself.[14] The Chinese contestants go through a camp, which lasts from March 16 to April 2.[15] In others, such as the USA, possible participants go through a series of easier standalone competitions that gradually increase in difficulty. In the case of the USA, the tests include the American Mathematics Competitions, the American Invitational Mathematics Examination, and the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad, each of which is a competition in its own right. For high scorers on the final competition for the team selection, there also is a summer camp, like that of China.[16]

The former Soviet Union and other eastern European countries' selection process consists of choosing a team several years beforehand, and giving them special training specifically for the event. However, such methods have been discontinued in some countries.[17] In Ukraine, for instance, selection tests consist of four olympiads comparable to the IMO by difficulty and schedule. While identifying the winners, only the results of the current selection olympiads are considered.


The participants are ranked based on their individual scores. Medals are awarded to the highest ranked participants, such that slightly less than half of them receive a medal. Subsequently the cutoffs (minimum scores required to receive a gold, silver or bronze medal respectively) are chosen such that the ratio of gold to silver to bronze medals awarded approximates 1:2:3. Participants who do not win a medal but who score seven points on at least one problem receive an honorable mention.[18]

Special prizes may be awarded for solutions of outstanding elegance or involving good generalisations of a problem. This last happened in 1995 (Nikolay Nikolov, Bulgaria) and 2005 (Iurie Boreico), but was more frequent up to the early 1980s.[19] The special prize in 2005 was awarded to Iurie Boreico, a student from Moldova, who came up with a brilliant solution to question 3, which was an inequality involving three variables.

The rule that at most half the contestants win a medal is sometimes broken if adhering to it causes the number of medals to deviate too much from half the number of contestants. This last happened in 2010, when the choice was to give either 226 (43.71%) or 266 (51.45%) of the 517 (excluding the 6 from North Korea — see below) contestants a medal,[20] 2012, when the choice was to give either 226 (46.35%) or 277 (50.55%) of the 548 contestants a medal, and 2013, when the choice was to give either 249 (47.16%) or 278 (52.65%) of the 528 contestants a medal.


North Korea was disqualified for cheating at the 32nd IMO in 1991 and the 51st IMO in 2010.[21] It is the only country to have been accused of cheating. There is some debate as to whether North Korea was actually cheating, especially in the 51st IMO.

Recent and future IMOs

Members of the 2007 IMO Greek team.

Notable achievements

From left to right, Gabriel Carroll, US, Reid Barton, US, Liang Xiao, China, and Zhiqiang Zhang, China, the four perfect scorers in the 2001 IMO held in the US.

The following nations have achieved the highest team score in the respective competition:

  • China, 19 times (since the first participation in 1985 until 2014): in 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014;
  • Soviet Union, 14 times: in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1979, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1991;
  • Hungary, 6 times: in 1961, 1962, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1975;
  • Romania, 5 times: in 1959, 1978, 1985, 1987, 1996;
  • United States, 5 times: in 1977, 1981, 1986, 1994, 2015;
  • West Germany, 2 times: in 1982 and 1983;
  • Russia, 2 times: in 1999 and 2007;
  • Bulgaria, 1 time: in 2003;[33]
  • Iran, 1 time: in 1998;
  • South Korea, 1 time: in 2012.
  • German Democratic Republic, 1 time: in 1968

The following nations have achieved an all-members-gold IMO with a full team:

The only country to have its entire team score perfectly on the IMO was the United States, which won IMO 1994 when it accomplished this, coached by Paul Zeitz, and Luxembourg, whose 1-member team got a perfect score in IMO 1981. The US's success earned a mention in TIME Magazine.[39] Hungary won IMO 1975 in an unorthodox way when none of the eight team members received a gold medal (five silver, three bronze). Second place team East Germany also did not have a single gold medal winner (four silver, four bronze).

Several individuals have consistently scored highly and/or earned medals on the IMO: As of July 2015, Zhuoqun Alex Song (Canada) is the most successful participant[40] with five gold medals (including one perfect score in 2015) and one bronze medal.[41] Reid Barton (United States) was the first participant to win a gold medal four times (1998-2001).[42] Barton is also one of only eight four-time Putnam Fellow (2001–04). Christian Reiher (Germany), Lisa Sauermann (Germany), Teodor von Burg (Serbia), and Nipun Pitimanaaree (Thailand) are the only other participants to have won four gold medals (2000–03, 2008–11, 2009–12, 2010–13, and 2011-2014 respectively); Reiher also received a bronze medal (1999), Sauermann a silver medal (2007), von Burg a silver medal (2008) and a bronze medal (2007), and Pitimanaaree a silver medal (2009).[43] Wolfgang Burmeister (East Germany), Martin Härterich (West Germany), Iurie Boreico (Moldova), and Jeck Lim (Singapore) are the only other participants besides Reiher, Sauermann, von Burg, and Pitimanaaree to win five medals with at least three of them gold.[2] Ciprian Manolescu (Romania) managed to write a perfect paper (42 points) for gold medal more times than anybody else in history of competition, doing it all three times he participated in the IMO (1995, 1996, 1997).[44] Manolescu is also a three-time Putnam Fellow (1997, 1998, 2000).[45] Evgenia Malinnikova (Soviet Union) is the highest-scoring female contestant in IMO history. She has 3 gold medals in IMO 1989 (41 points), IMO 1990 (42) and IMO 1991 (42), missing only 1 point in 1989 to precede Manolescu's achievement.[46]

Terence Tao (Australia) participated in IMO 1986, 1987 and 1988, winning bronze, silver and gold medals respectively. He won a gold medal when he just turned thirteen in IMO 1988, becoming the youngest person at that time[47] to receive a gold medal (a feat matched in 2011 by Zhuoqun Alex Song of Canada). Tao also holds the distinction of being the youngest medalist with his 1986 bronze medal, alongside 2009 bronze medalist Raúl Chávez Sarmiento (Peru), at the age of 10 and 11 respectively.[48] Representing the United States, Noam Elkies won a gold medal with a perfect paper at the age of 14 in 1981. Note that both Elkies and Tao could have participated in the IMO multiple times following their success, but entered university and therefore became ineligible.

Media coverage

  • A documentary, "Hard Problems: The Road To The World's Toughest Math Contest" was made about the United States 2006 IMO team.[49]
  • A BBC documentary titled Beautiful Young Minds aired July 2007 about the IMO.
  • A BBC fictional film titled X+Y released in September 2014 tells the story of an autistic boy who took part in the Olympiad.

See also


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External links