Which Countries Win the International Mathematical Olympiads

IMOI was asked on twitter how students of Indian origin do in the maths equivalent of the US spelling bee contests. (I had written a blog post on how students of Indian origin appear to have cornered the market on US spelling bee contests.)

I guess they do well in math too. I did a bit of searching on the web and here’s what I found. The USA Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) is the preeminent high school mathematics contest administered by the MAA’s American Mathematics Competitions program (AMC). The 2016 competition results selected 12 out of 325 contestants from across the US. Of the 12 winners, going by their names, two were clearly of Indian origin: Ankan Bhattacharya and Mihir Singhal.

The USAMO is a national competition. There’s an international competition too. “The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) is the World Championship Mathematics Competition for High School students and is held annually in a different host country. The first IMO was held in 1959 in Romania, with seven countries participating. Today more than 100 countries from six continents participate.”

How did US students do in the International Mathematical Olympiad? In 2016, more than 100 countries competed in July in Hong Kong. and the US team won the first prize. That US team of six high school students, again going by their names, had two of Indian origin: (the aforementioned) Ankan Bhattacharya and Ashwin Sah.

(For the kind of questions that feature in the IMO, see thisExample:

Let P = AA2 … Ak be a convex polygon on the plane. The vertices A1, A2, …, Ak have integral coordinates and lie on a circle. Let S be the area of P. An odd positive integer n is given such that the squares of the side lengths of P are integers divisible by n. Prove that 2S is an integer divisible by n.)

This was the second year in a row that the US team placed first in the IMO. The 2015 competition was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The team of six students had one of Indian origin: Shyam Narayanan.

The US teams appear to do OK in the IMO, just like they do in the regular Olympic games. That’s understandable considering that it is a big, rich, industrialized country. How do other countries do? Here’s a bit from the wiki page on IMO.

The following nations have achieved the highest team score in the respective competition:

China, 19 times (from the first participation in 1985 until 2014)
Soviet Union, 14 times
Hungary, 6 times
United States, 6 times
Romania, 5 times
West Germany, 2 times
Russia, 2 times
Bulgaria, Iran, South Korea, East Germany: once each

The following nations have achieved an all-members-gold IMO with a full team:

China, 11 times
United States, 3 times
Russia, 2 times
South Korea, Bulgaria, once each

How about India? India predictably does not show because it has never won the IMO. India is poor and has perhaps the worst educational system of the large countries of the world. India’s educational system is a disaster because of incompetent government control. Just as an aside, I believe that the Ministry of Human Resource Development is the biggest enemy of the Indian educational system.

The bottom line. The IMO and the Spelling Bee successes of students of Indian origin reinforce one fact: Indians do better outside India than in India. Indians in the US form a tiny fragment of the US population: less than 1%. Yet they are over-represented among the top performers in several domains such as science, engineering, medicine, business, education, social sciences, etc (with the exception of music and entertainment.)

I think Prime Minister Modi should spend some time pondering this fact during one of his many trips abroad cheering the NRIs.

4 thoughts on “Which Countries Win the International Mathematical Olympiads

  1. I remember reading that the part of the reason why India cant even send its best kids to IMO is because most of the top kids are busy preparing for IIT-JEE and an unbelievable scarcity of seats means even half a mark matters.


    1. Not the full explanation maybe, but it makes sense: IMO medals help an American student résumé, but I guess they don’t do much for Indian students (I know they don’t help Brazilian students). I must say however that I don’t understand Indian performance (below Brazil’s– and our educational system is legendarily awful).
      There are clearly lots (absolute numbers at least, after all, India is big) of great Indian professionals and good schools. How difficult can be to field a great Math team when a country only needs a handful of top students?


  2. This article piqued my interest in probing why India does so poorly at the IMO. The general education level shouldn’t matter so much as the competition only measures the peak: top 6 participants from India on 7 problems. I didn’t get to any easy answer but noticed a possibly irrelevant but curious pattern. Of the 11 gold medalists from India in the IMO since 1990, ~30% are bangali and ~50% went to MIT for higher education after winning the gold medal. Why people from Bengal are over-represented may be a matter for some interesting study- genes or onko culture or lack of an IITJEE prep cram environment or more IMO-specific awareness. Anecdotally, people from bengal seem to over-represented in academia too (economics, math, science, etc. – not counting the aantel subjects)


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