US Wins International Mathematics Olympiad for First Time in 21 Years


For the first time in 21 years, the US has won the International Mathematical Olympiad.

The USA team, led by Professor Po-Shen Loh of Carnegie Mellon University, competed against more than 100 countries in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The USA’s last win came in 1994, notes Dominique Mosbergen of the Huffington Post. Since then, the competition has been dominated by the Chinese, who came in second in this competition. Other recent winners include South Korea, which came in third this year, and Russia.

NPR interviewed Loh, who suggested that the difficulty of the questions indicated how strong the field was:

If you can solve even one question, you’re a bit of a genius.

Students in the final competition solve six problems dealing with algebra, geometry, number theory, and combinatorics, among other topics, in 4.5-hour sessions over the course of two days. Answers are not given in simple numbers, but often demand long explanations. The team’s score is the sum of its member’s scores.

According to Michael E. Miller of the Washington Post, this year’s team had all male members: David Stoner, Ryan Alweiss, Allen Liu, Yang Liu, Shyam Narayanan, and Michael Kural. The fact that historically almost all the competitors are male illustrates the dearth of women who are mathematical high achievers and who go on to create careers in the STEM fields. However, progress is being made — this year, the Ukrainian team had an equal number of boys and girls, writes Natalie Schachar of the LA Times.

Loh said that gender balance is happening, albeit slowly:

That is actually something that one hopes will change. The top 12 people in the country on the United States Math Olympiad happen to have two girls in it. One might say, ‘Only 2 out of 12, that’s terrible.’ But I should say in many years, it was, unfortunately, zero.

Some feel that this victory is evidence that the math education situation in America is less dire than it seems. In 2015, 15-year-olds in the US were rated 35th in math and 27th in science out of 64 countries by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.

Loh said that their success shows that the United States’ best students are globally competitive:

At least in the case with the Olympiads, we’ve been able to prove that our top Americans are certainly at the level of the top people from the other countries.

Loh, who was himself a contestant in 1999, hopes that math education in America will be reformed to interest more students and involve more creativity. He said that making math more engaging could bring diversity of all sorts to the competition:

Ultimately, I think that as the mathematical culture starts to reach out to more people in the United States, we could quite possibly start to see more diversity. And I think that would be a fantastic outcome.

It could be that maybe the way math is sold, in some sense, is one in which it’s just a bunch of formulas to memorize. I think if we are able to communicate to the greater American public that mathematics is not just about memorizing a bunch of formulas, but in fact is as creative as the humanities and arts, quite possibly you might be able to upend the culture difference.

This year’s Math Olympiad was the 56th international competition.