Sergey Bogdanov: “Today IMO is a symbol of overcoming difficult time”

Sergey Bogdanov: “Today IMO is a symbol of overcoming difficult time”

On July 18, the Grand opening ceremony of the 62nd International Mathematical Olympiad took place within the walls of Herzen University. We talked with representatives of the organizing committee of the Olympiad about what awaits the participants of the event this year. Rector of the Herzen University Sergey Bogdanov and Director of the Presidential Physics and Mathematics Lyceum №239 Maxim Pratusevich answered our questions and told us about the preparation of one of the most significant events in the world of mathematics.

1. St. Petersburg became the first city in the history of IMO to host the Olympics two years in a row. Tell us what caused such a unique event and how you feel about it.

Maxim Pratusevich (MP): In 2021, the International Mathematical Olympiad was supposed to be in the USA, in Washington, but they refused and wrote an official letter stating that the organizing committee does not guarantee the holding of the event. And the IMO Council, represented by its President, asked us to hold the Olympiad with the hope that it will be held in a full-time format.
Accordingly, the Herzen University, the Governor of St. Petersburg, the Ministry of Education gave their consent to hold the IMO in St. Petersburg. This happened at the closing ceremony of the Olympiad last year.

Sergey Bogdanov (SB): Thank you to our colleagues from the Ministry of Education, who trusted us at this difficult moment, gave us the opportunity to hold the Olympiad at our university. This is very symbolic for us, because, during the siege of Leningrad in 1943, the Mathematics Olympiad also was held within the walls of our university. It was as significant a fact for the city as Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, as the blockade match. And today IMO is also a symbol of overcoming a difficult time.

2. Are there any differences in this year’s event compared to the past? Perhaps new formats and activities are waiting for the participants?

SB: Yes, there are some differences. First, the number of teams has increased, last year 106 countries took part in the Olympiad, this year 109, the geography has expanded. Secondly, this time we are partially taking a step towards offline: about 120 people will come to our city and will be able to take part in a normal, non-remote mode, and this, of course, makes us very happy.
In addition, we have prepared an even more intense non-competitive program. According to tradition, after the end of the competition days, participants will have various excursions, as well as a lecture with an invited expert in the world of mathematics, and there is only one in the usual mode. The online format allowed us to hold 4 full-fledged lectures with outstanding personalities, and this year the program has increased to seven events. This is a unique opportunity and, I think, we can thank the virtual format of the event for it.

MP: of course, we considered all the experience of last year and tried to improve all the processes. This time, as in 2020, a video surveillance headquarters will be organized on the basis of the Presidential Physics and Mathematics Lyceum No. 239, where specialists will monitor online compliance with the rules of the Olympiad. This is a serious logistics, considering time zones, the scanning process, technical features, almost round-the-clock work will be carried out.
And I can say with confidence that this year, based on the already existing experience, we have organized work at an even higher level.

3. In your opinion, the online format can compete with the traditional one after all restrictions are lifted, or will there be nothing to replace face-to-face communication?

SB: this is out of the question. We all know and understand what the Olympic Games are for athletes. For math students, IMO is the same as the Olympic Games. And when you see the parade of participants at the opening ceremony when there are teams from more than a hundred countries, you understand: the whole world is here! This feeling of celebration and the atmosphere of friendship are indescribable!
It so happened that there is about 10 percent of girls among the participants. You should see how the audience explodes with applause when they see girls in the team. You should watch how the audience explodes with emotions and applause when there is only one person in the team! These are unique moments, and we miss them now.
Of course, we would like to introduce the IMO participants to our city, to our country – we have a lot of things to show! But until there are restrictions related to the pandemic, we are forced to adhere to them.
And I would like to add two words about the specifics of holding the Olympiad in an online format. Recently, I often quote the Chinese wisdom: “When an enemy is approaching you, do not rush to build a stone wall.” I would like to thank our colleagues once again for participating in the preparation of such a large-scale and significant event. Because this challenge (the pandemic) became an incentive for the development of a new format of work. And now we feel more confident and hope that future Olympiads will be held considering the experience we gained last year and this year.

4. Sergey Igorevich, please share your experience of holding Olympiads and various intellectual competitions among schoolchildren on the basis of Herzen University (or with your participation). What became the main thing when deciding to conduct the IMO on the basis of your university?

SB: Of course, the experience has been very large. Back in 2012, our university for the first time held the final stage of the All-Russian Olympiad for schoolchildren in geography, for the participants this is the last step before international competitions. We can say that it was then that we took the first step towards holding international Olympiads, without realizing it ourselves.
Over the next seven years, the final stages of the All-Russian Olympiad in various subjects were held within the walls of our university, and in seven years we have gained tremendous experience, learned all the subtleties of such events. And of course, we had a desire to apply the existing knowledge and go to the international level. Therefore, when the city approached us with a question about the possibility of holding the International Mathematical Olympiad, we expressed our readiness and proceeded to register the application. In 2016, the application was approved, and we began preparation, which lasted 4 years.
We are glad that over the past 10 years our university has become a kind of center for various competitions for schoolchildren and students in various disciplines and we plan to develop this direction.

5. Maxim Yakovlevich, International Mathematical Olympiad is the most important event in the world of mathematics. Is the student’s natural talent, aptitude for mathematics, and lessons at school sufficient for successful participation, or is heightened additional training needed?

MP: Every year, about 300 schoolchildren win in the International Mathematical Olympiad, and of them a person who has talent, but at the same time did not work hard in addition, could probably win only one. That is, this is a lot of work, this is serious training, and of course, this issue lies outside the scope of school lessons. The task of the school teacher is to capture this talent and rule it in the right direction. But further – it is a huge work.

6. And what is more important: to cope with the task or to solve it outside the box?

MP: The problem must be solved! As the saying goes, “if the enemy does not surrender, then he is destroyed”. But the International Olympiad consists of four topics: algebra, geometry, combinatorics and number theory. Accordingly, a person must be strong in all these areas. At the qualifying camps, we try to give knowledge on all tracks. There are rules that do not allow mathematical “arbitrariness”, and all team members are aware of this.

7. What would you wish the participants of the 62nd International Mathematical Olympiad?

SB: you know, I wish them luck. I wish each participant good luck, because they have everything else: intelligence, experience, desire to win. And to become a medalist, you probably need to be lucky.

ME: I will be short, beautiful solutions, interesting problems!