Shyam Narayanan, Blue Valley West’s Harvard-bound math master, knew the simple arithmetic he and his fellow U.S. team members were up against.
Nobody beats China in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Not recently, anyway.
And certainly not the U.S., which hadn’t won the Olympiad since 1994.
Against more than 100 teams from around the world, China in that span racked up 15 championships and three second-place finishes.
“We were very nervous about this,” Narayanan said.
He was speaking by phone last week from Kallidaikurichi, India, where he was visiting relatives, basking in this stunning news:
The U.S. team won the thing. Beat China and everyone else.
Team USA defeated China by four points. Math enthusiasts compare the upset earlier this month in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to the U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the Soviet Union en route to that incredible gold medal in 1980.
“We didn’t expect to win,” Narayanan said. “But (his team knew) it was still possible.”
One difference. None of those U.S. teams over the past 20 contests had Narayanan.
The Blue Valley West graduate has long been staking his ground as a champion math prodigy.
He was 11 when he won the national Math Counts competition and earned a trip with the other — older and taller — champions to meet President Barack Obama in the White House Oval Office in 2010.
At 13, he was the youngest champion yet to win the national Who Wants to Be a Mathematician contest in 2012.
Now 17, he’s going to Harvard, but all the other Ivy League schools accepted him too, plus Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Chicago…
He was one of six students from across the country selected for the U.S. team. This competition, and this victory, was the sweetest so far, he said.
This was a real thinking-person’s contest. Not so much answer-based, but a celebration of the mighty depth of math work.
Just describing a problem is challenging.
Problem No. 2: Determine all triples (a,b,c) of positive integers such that each of the numbers — ab-c, bc-a, ca-b — is a power of 2. (A power of 2 is an integer of the form 2n, where n is a non-negative integer.)
Most of the problems and their wild equations don’t translate well into a text paragraph.
The teams go at it for two days, answering only three questions in 4 1/2 hours each day, because the questions demand intricate solutions and a detailed narrative proving your answer.
And then the teams get to go sightseeing in Thailand for three days because it takes that long for judges to analyze and score their results.
The answers for one question can be nine pages long, said U.S. team coach Po-Shen Loh, a math professor at Carnegie Mellon and the founder of the interactive math and science website Expii.
The competition doesn’t require students to know college calculus or higher math, but challenges their creativity and innovative thought, Loh said.
The U.S. team was drawn from some 200,000 students who compete in local Mathematical Association of America contests. The association chose 54 students to join a three-week summer camp at Carnegie Mellon where they celebrated “the freedom to spend enormous time studying math,” Loh said.
“We don’t just train them like horses,” he said. “It’s not about cramming math down their throats. It’s about inspiring them about what they can do with math.”
This competition, more than any other, thrilled Narayanan for the way it demanded “strong thinking skills” and the opportunities it provided “to meet so many people from around the world,” he said.
That included the members of the Chinese team, whom the U.S. team met. They shared their thinking after their contest answers had been turned in.
“We knew China had performed very well,” he said.
Three nights later, Narayanan returned to his team’s hotel to hear teammates exulting at the newly posted results. First place to the U.S., second to China and third to South Korea.
Five of the U.S. team’s players, including Narayanan, won individual gold medals, and the other team member won a silver. So this was a team of great depth.
Loh imagines great work ahead for Narayanan and his plans to study theoretical math, finance or medicine.
“He wants to do something good for the world,” he said. “I can tell. When you have people who are so clever they can out-think anyone else, you hope they will do some good. And with Shyam, I have no doubt he will.”
Loh also hopes to see a swell in enthusiasm for math through the attention the world is laying on the six U.S. winners.
He knows what’s possible. Students start getting shots at high-level math competitions in their middle school years — and Loh was heading into the seventh grade in 1994, the summer of the last U.S. Olympiad championship.
“I definitely remember that happening,” he said. “For me, knowing that this competition existed was great.”
Loh would go on to be a member of the U.S. team five years later in 1999 that finished well behind China.
“I’m extremely proud of these six students,” he said of the 2015 team. “What they did was a great achievement.”