The International Mathematical Olympiad is widely recognized as a global stage for the brightest high school mathletes from around the world to showcase their talent. Although the IMO today welcomes students from more than 100 countries, the competition started during the Cold War with just seven Eastern Bloc countries. In 1959 the Romanian Mathematical Society invited students from its home country, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union to take part in a math competition in the Romanian city of Orasul Stalin (now Brasov). The one-time matchup was so successful that the countries agreed to meet again in Romania the following year.
What began as a small gathering of competitors from seven Eastern Bloc nations has grown into a cross-cultural confluence of math students from around the world. The first Western nation to enter the contest was Finland, in 1965. By 1969, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the U.K. were competing. The U.S. joined in 1974. By 1981 the competition had extended to the rest of North America, parts of South America, Israel and Australia.
A few years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of the IMO, Radu Gologan, president of the Romanian Mathematical Society, reflected on the competition’s impact in a time of geopolitical tension: “During the Iron Curtain era, the IMO was one of the few possibilities to put together clever minds from different countries, in a period where contacts were hardly possible.”
Today the IMO has approximately 1,300 participants from five continents. Around the world, precollege students who excel at math compete at the regional and national levels before moving on to the world championship. Countries send teams of up to six precollege students, who solve problems in subjects such as algebra, geometry, number theory and combinatorics. Half of all the students are awarded gold, silver or bronze medals.
Although competitors are often 16 or younger, companies are taking note of achievement in the IMO as a potential predictor of future success. As a sponsor of this year’s competition, which returns home to Romania in July, WorldQuant is eager to meet the next generation of outstanding mathletes.
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