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Winning formula: USA tops International Math Olympiad for first time in 21 years

Po-Shen Loh, far right, and Team USA in Chiang Mai, Thailand (Courtesy of Po-Shen Loh)


In 1980, the United States hockey team pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history, beating a powerhouse Soviet squad, 4-3, on its way to winning the gold medal. The game would go down in history as “The Miracle on Ice.”

Thirty-five years later, America pulled off another stunning upset this week.

But this victory involved integers, not ice skates, and was waged not by hulking Cold Warriors but by teens.

Team America has finally retaken the International Mathematical Olympiad crown. The victory this week was a historic comeback.

If winning a youth math competition seems less important than vanquishing the Soviets back in 1980, consider this: the last time America won the IMO was 1994. Back then, Bill Clinton was president and Ace of Base was top of the pop charts.

In the decades since, America has slowly slid down the education charts, especially when it comes to math and science.

[U.S. students lag around average on international science, math and reading test]

“It’s been 21 years,” Team USA’s head coach, Po-Shen Loh, told The Washington Post. “This is a huge deal.”

He should know. Loh himself was a contestant back in 1999, when the U.S. slumped to 10th place.

“This is a matter of national pride.” he explained. “One reason we are super excited is that for the past five years or so, we’ve been consistently second or third. It’s actually quite difficult to win. We are going up against a natural population disadvantage in the sense that China, which is the usual winner, has four times as many people.”

“Finally, to topple a country that should beat us by all expectations is a fantastic achievement for these six students,” said Loh, a math professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

In a sign of the tournament’s geostrategic importance, the White House gave props to Team USA on its big win in Chiang Mai.

The U.S. edged out China by four points, 185-181. South Korea took third place.

The rankings were based on the number of points scored by individual team members on six problems. Students tackle the problems three at a time in 4.5 hour sessions over two days, according to the Mathematical Association of America, the organization behind the American team.

Five U.S. team members won gold medals: Ryan Alweiss, Allen Liu, Yang Liu, Shyam Narayanan and David Stoner. A sixth member, Michael Kural, missed gold by one point, settling for silver.

Kural, a 17-year-old from Connecticut, said the competition was tougher than he expected.

“It was a definitely a lot harder than we’ve been used to,” he told the Guardian over a meal of steamed rice and spicy pork curry after the final match. “I think a lot of teams weren’t really used to that.”

Here’s an example of the problems Kural and company had to solve:

“The questions that we do here are not anything like school questions,” Loh explained. “It’s not like going into college math. It’s like thinking harder.”

He gave a math-challenged reporter a sports analogy.

“When you look at the Olympics, everyone can understand what they are doing. It’s pretty basic stuff: run as fast as you can,” he said. “In some sense the math Olympiad is similar because the math you are using, you don’t have to have a college degree to understand. However, you do have to be creative.”

[‘When is Cheryl’s birthday?’ The math problem that stumped the Internet]

And like the Olympics, the Olympiad isn’t just about national pride, but national improvement.

“Why we are doing this for the country is that basically it plays the same role as the Olympics does in sports: to have some sort of far destination that all of our hundreds of thousands or millions of people in America can reach towards, like a pinnacle in the distance,” Loh said. “It pushes people to reach farther in mathematics.”

Loh said he hoped his students’ victory would “inspire large areas of the population to try harder in mathematics than they ever thought they could.”

He added that the tournament was far less cutthroat than the Olympics. No cheating. No mind games. Sometimes teams actually help one another.

“It’s the exact opposite of backstabbing,” Loh said. “The coaches are always the same. We are all friends. It’s very collegial. We are essentially going after the same goal, which is to drive the whole world up.

“At the end of the day, the talent flow goes in many directions,” he said. “For example, many of the top students come to the United States to go to university. So we are all the beneficiary.”

But international integer solidarity didn’t stop Team America from pulling out the Stars and Stripes on the victory stage.

“The closing ceremonies are quite moving,” he said. “You have this scene where all of the top students are being recognized and they are holding their huge flags. Some of them are wearing the flags. It’s a big deal. Some of them are very attached to their countries.”

This was Loh’s second year in charge of the team, but he spent four years before that as an assistant. He admits that after five years of second or third place finishes, plus his own 10th place performance 16 years ago, it felt good to finally beat the Chinese.

“Of course there is a very friendly rivalry between us,” he said. “When China conceded defeat, their coach came over to me and we shook hands.

“Usually it’s the other way around.”


Here are the names of the team members: Ryan Alweiss, Allen Liu, Yang Liu, Shyam Narayanan, and David Stoner, all of whom were awarded gold medals, and Michael Kural. More more on the team, click here.  For rankings over the years, click here. 

CORRECTION: This post originally misstated which nation the U.S. men’s hockey team defeated to win the Olympic gold medal in 1980.