The Making of a Mathlete

Geek Culture

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It’s not as well known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee or First LEGO League, but every year the International Math Olympiad brings together top math students from around the world. And if you’re wondering how a kid becomes a mathlete, local PBS stations in the United States are showing a new documentary about the 2006 IMO team. Hard Problems follows six students as they prepare to take the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) test in San Jose, California. If you’re wondering how they can make assembling a math team exciting, here’s a snippet from the film’s website:

The highest scoring students at the USAMO, Brian Lawrence and Sherry Gong, have opted to pursue summer research programs instead of competing this year. Not one member of the 2006 IMO team has been on a team before. Team leader Zuming Feng is wary of handicapping his team. He thinks a third place finish behind Russia and China would be a stellar performance for such a young and inexperienced team. While several team members are veterans of MOP [Math Olympiad Summer Program], Zuming is intrigued by Zeb Brady, who came out of nowhere with scores high enough to make the team. “He has never been to MOP. I always hope that one of my six students, one or two are like this,” he says.

Sounds like the sports pages to me.

What kind of people are drawn to math competition? Here’s a quote from veteran math competitor Alison Miller, whose mom Mary O’Keeffe is an inspiration to women in math everywhere:

What would be really exciting would be to discover something that wasn’t even a problem in the first place. I don’t know how one goes around having that happen; it’s probably a matter of serendipity, and you think about enough mathematics and maybe you get lucky and you get that insight. I don’t know, but that would be really awesome. And this is why I want to learn as much math as I can.

Kathy Ceceri is author of Around the World Crafts.

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