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Math Olympians

The stellar performance of Team Philippines at the Tokyo Olympics is a source of pride and consolation in this pandemic. Hard work, smart training and the support of family and friends enabled Hidilyn Diaz, Nesthy Petecio, Eumir Marcial, Carlo Paalam and the rest to do our country proud.

Another Olympics was also held last July 14 to 24, and lessons from our experience are instructive for society, including families and businesses. Hosted by St. Petersburg, Russia, the 62nd International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) was held online for the second straight year.

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The most prestigious global math contest for high school students, the IMO was first held in Romania in 1959, with seven participating countries. This year, 619 students from 107 nations joined.

Instead of prioritizing calculating speed, the IMO focuses on nonroutine problems in algebra, geometry, number theory, combinatorics. No higher math, such as calculus, is required.

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The competition proper spans two consecutive days, with three problems tackled for four and a half hours each day. No gadgets, even calculators, are allowed. Aside from correctness, creativity and elegance of solutions are key in doing well.

Much like the physical Olympics, contestants immerse themselves in problem solving for years. With family support, they join training pools in grade school and compete in local and regional contests. In high school, they battle it out in the Philippine Mathematical Olympiad (PMO), from qualifying stages all the way to the finals, where top scorers are trained for the IMO by the Mathematical Society of the Philippines (MSP). A collaboration between MSP and the Department of Science and Technology’s Science Education Institute, the PMO is also supported by private groups.

Our country first joined the IMO in 1988, with the late Jose Marasigan of Ateneo de Manila University as team leader. This year, MSP’s Christian Paul Chan Shio and Raymond Joseph Fadri, both IMO veterans teaching in Ateneo, served as team leader and deputy, respectively. Several other trainors were also former contestants who wanted to “give back,” says Chan Shio.

“Before, we were near the bottom, today we are way above the upper half of countries. With government and private sector aid, we could concentrate on the academics. The families were supportive, everyone was rooting for the students to do well.”

Through the years, selection and training processes were refined, but the pandemic made these more challenging. Rather than daily weekday sessions, the team had to contend with conflicting school schedules, and trained in late weekday afternoons, and longer on Saturdays and even Sundays.

Much as Diaz practiced on the same stage before the actual competition, contestants also underwent IMO simulations to prepare for the real event.

These efforts paid off: everyone on the team bagged medals.

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Bryce Ainsley Sanchez of Grace Christian College, Steven Reyes of Saint Jude Catholic School, Immanuel Josiah Balete of St. Stephen’s High School and Raphael Dylan Dalida of Philippine Science High School-Main garnered silver medals. Sarji Elijah Bona of De La Salle University Senior High School and Vincent dela Cruz of Valenzuela School of Mathematics and Science received bronze.

Such performance catapulted the Philippines to 23rd among 107 countries. China ranked first, followed by the Russian Federation, South Korea, the United States and then Canada.

“I was competing before, and of course, everyone wants to get the highest score,” says Fadri. “But what I like is that our students did not compete against each other. They shared techniques and ideas, they did not keep strategies to themselves. So everyone, not just one or two, did well.”

“We beat math powerhouses like Japan and Romania,” says Chan Shio. “If we really put our mind to it, with proper training and support, we can be world-class.” inq

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TAGS: Business, Carlo Paalam, Eumir Marcial, Hidilyn Diaz, Nesthy Petecio, Tokyo Olympics
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