The XXth International Mathematical Olympiad
Bucharest Romania 1978
personal recollections

Alan Dix

I was in the 1978 team to Romania and, excluding personal events like the birth of my daughters, it is still one of my most memorable and precious experiences. For the first time in my life I found a group of people I could talk to without feeling strange or odd. In the UK it is definitely NOT cool to be a bright boy, especially in mathematics and especially coming from a working class and comprehensive school background! Not only was I suddenly in the midst of a hundred or more children who thought like me, but also in Romania where mathematics was not only an acceptable thing to do, but good - I was even interviewed on Romanian television on equal footing with the world modern pentathlon event that was happening at the same time. Imagine that in the UK!!

Not only was it a joy to find a peer group and to talk mathematics, but it was also for me a unique cultural and personal experience. I'd never left the country before (the furthest I'd been was the Isle of Wight in the south and Butlins holiday camp at Pwllheli in the north). I became a special friend of our team interpreter, Radu, a Romanian school teacher, and some other members of the team and I visited him and his wife and son in his home in Bucharest. One night after the competition while we were all staying on the coast at Constanta, he and I went on an evening a trip to deliver a parcel to a 'family friend' in the lobby of a hotel - and as we sat on the tram I wondered, was it really a family friend or a clandestine message being passed - would secret police swoop out of the darkness?

So many small details - I recall well the meals that consisted almost solely of pork, the all Jewish US team who decided it was best to conveniently not notice for the duration of the competition, a very beautiful girl in the Yugoslav team, the city streets that were wider than the length of most streets I knew and the 'International Highway' to Constanta on the coast that was little more than a dirt track. And on the way to Constanta a cafe where they had built the roof with a hole in it around the old tree that grew unhindered through it, which served bottled lemonade that tasted unlike any lemonade I'd had before until I realised it tasted of lemons. Then, at the coast, booths on the sea shore selling hats and toys made of mushroom skin (big mushrooms!!). Oh of course, not to forget the Kents - cigarettes from the dollar shops for the Romanian interpreters!

I also learnt to take media views of different countries and politics with an element of caution. Before I left I expected a visit behind the Iron Curtain to be to a drab frightened country. True, for the first time I saw police carrying machine guns ... when we changed planes at Frankfurt airport! Yes the streets and buildings were liberally decorated with pictures of Ceaucescu, but the people were open, both freely criticising aspects of their government, but also wonderfully proud of their country and its independence and also Ceaucescu's reform of the party and removal of party privileges. Years later with the collapse of the Soviet block I watched with sadness the bloody events there and wondered whether things had really changed so dramatically in the intervening years, or whether those who executed Ceaucescu and his family were just the old party apparatchiki waiting in the wings all those years to exercise revenge?

I came close to causing a diplomatic incident myself when I nearly hit the Minister of Education in the face ... not deliberately, but as I gave a speech at the closing ceremony of the Olympiad - I never have learnt to keep my hands still as I talk.

But my most precious memory of all is of a small children's holiday village on the Black Sea coast a few miles north of Constanta. We'd all gone there for the day to bathe in the Sea and then in the evening the children gave a concert in our honour. They gave their whole hearts to it and I whispered to Radu, our interpreter, "is someone going to thank them for us at the end" - "yes" he said "you must do it". So in the gathering darkness of the summer night I spoke in English and heard the words translated in Romanian, and after the children flocked around and I got lost in the crowd of them, the older ones asking faltering questions in broken English and a small boy gave me a woven badge, and I still have it, and I said I would never forget them, and I have never done so and still remember that night with joy and love.


IMO links

Alan's blog tag: IMO
my own blog posts about the IMO .
main IMO site
links to past competitions and individual countries IMO sites
UK IMO register
lists all UK team members 1967-2002 with stats on where they went after etc.
British Mathematical Olympiad Committee
runs the selection process for the IMO and other activities to foster mathematical interest in UK schools.
The IMO Compendium
stats and data, problems and bios.

Professor Alan's puzzle square?
can you solve it? (click arrows)
put a puzzle like this on your own page
or make one with your own picture