- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2001

Recognize this?

na(bc) - a - (bc).

Of course not. You are not 17 years old. And chances are you are not a math wiz.

The young mental athletes from around the world who crowded into the Patriot Center at George Mason University yesterday know exactly what those scribbles mean. They’re part of a solution to an Olympic math problem that would give most people a headache just to look at.

Teams of six high school students from 83 countries tackled math problems translated into 50 languages in the first leg of the two-day 42nd International Mathematical Olympiad.

Last year, the Olympics were held in Taejon, Korea.

It has been 20 years since the event was held on American soil, so you couldn’t blame Team USA for being just a little bit nervous. The members went into seclusion to contemplate their mistakes after yesterday’s round of exams was over.

“Right now is the craziest time,” said two-time silver medalist Melanie Woods, 19, of Duke University — the only woman ever to compete for the United States. She’s too old to compete this year. You are washed up early in the math Olympics. No college students allowed. But who can resist the woodsy smell of a No. 2 pencil and the slick feel of a fresh test sheet. So this year she’s a volunteer helping train the team.

“We’re still having to think of today’s test,” she said. “… we have to let them relax because there’s another test tomorrow.”

Anchoring Team USA is the Carl Lewis of Olympic math: home-schooler Reid Barton of Arlington, Mass. The 18-year-old three-time gold medal winner is headed for Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, but before that he will try to become the first person in the competition’s history to take four gold medals in four years.

The nature of the exam hasn’t changed much since the Olympiad’s inception in 1959 in Bucharest, Romania, said Olympic spokesman Steve Wildstrom. The exams test knowledge of algebra, geometry, number theory and something called combinatorics, or the science of counting — “pencil-and-paper math,” Mr. Wildstrom calls it.

Refreshingly, calculators are banned from competition.

“With almost all of these problems, there’s a reasonably easy way to do it if you can find the key that opens that lock,” Mr. Wildstrom said. “The trick is finding that key.”

It’s tough to make the Olympic Squad.

For U.S. students, a nationwide series of three exams weeded down the field of 350,000 prospective competitors to a final 12. Those 12, along with 20 younger students being groomed for future competition, spent four weeks in Georgetown, in the District, learning the mystical secrets of mathematics open only to the proud few. Six were chosen to compete, with two acting as alternates.

The other teams arrived in the nation’s capital on July 3 and spent the last week as tourists.

Each day’s test consists of three questions worth seven points apiece. Students get 41/2 hours to complete the exams, which ultimately are judged by a panel of professional mathematicians. Out of 498 contenders, 41 will win gold medals, 83 will win the silver and 122 will win bronze.

The United States, which began participating in the event in 1976, has scored in the top five for 21 of 24 years. In the 1994 Olympiad in Hong Kong, all six members of the U.S. team received perfect scores of 42.

Not all choke under the weight of competitive international problem solving. At lunch yesterday, while many teams held strategy sessions in the cafeteria, Joris Geeroms, 18, and Bart Van Gasse, 18, of Belgium were engaged in a competition of their own in the hall outside — the standing high jump. Joris, who stands a little over 6 feet, had no problem leaping high enough to hit the 10-foot ceiling with his palm.

“I hope to get seven points,” Joris said. “But there’s not much pressure, I think.”

“It would be embarrassing if you get zero points,” Bart said.

Testing continues today. Judges will have the official scores Wednesday, and a closing ceremony will be held Friday at the Kennedy Center, where the medals will be awarded.

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