Journal of the 1992 International Olympiad in Informatics

Bonn, Germany

What a surprise to learn in November of 1991 that an international Olympiad in computer problem solving had been taking place in Europe for three years and that the United States had never participated! I became aware of the competition -- the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) -- from a colleague in South Africa. Later I learned that the idea for the IOI had grown out of the 24th session of the General Conference of UNESCO held in Paris in October, 1987. UNESCO had also been the driving force behind the International Olympiads in Mathematics and the Natural Sciences.

My friend gave me the e-mail address of Dr. Peter Heyderhoff, who was the managing director of IOI'92, so I sent off a request for more information. Peter was delighted to see that the U.S. might be interested in participating, and he quickly e-mailed the information I requested.

I learned that the IOI is an international programming competition for students up to age 19, and that only officially invited teams can participate. The host country sends out an official invitation to its foreign embassies around the world. This year Germany sent out 64 invitations, including one that went to the German Embassy in Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, when I contacted the German Embassy, they had no idea what I was talking about. It took several phone calls to track down on whose desk the official invitation had landed. The invitation apparently went from the Embassy to the German Desk of the U.S. State Department and then over to the Department of Education, where it ended up in the hands of Dr. Steward Tinsman, Director of International and Territorial Affairs. He was not familiar with the computer Olympiad but did give me some advice on how to go about organizing an official U.S. team. By this time it was the end of January, and the deadline for entering a U.S. team was February 28th. Several tasks had to be done and quickly, so I turned to e-mail once again.

I sent a request for support to Bonnie Marks, President, and Dave Moursund, Executive Officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). They both agreed that ISTE would participate in the Olympiad and that I could put the team together using sources with which I was familiar. Since 1981, I had organized and conducted an International Computer Problem Solving Contest (ICPSC) at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, which was written up each year in _The Computing Teacher_, the primary publication of ISTE. Thus, I was familiar with high schools in the U.S. that had students who had been winners in the ICPSC. That is where I began looking for the team of four students.

This year there would be no time to conduct a nationwide runoff contest to pick the members of the first U.S. team. I had to rely on the assistance of local ICPSC contest directors and of others involved with national computer programming contests to recommend their best prospects. I was also able to contact many former winners of ICPSC directly via e-mail. Those who were seriously interested and could make the trip to Bonn from July 10 - July 21 were asked to send me their resumes. Again, e-mail speeded up this process, and soon I had five good prospects.

Two factors weighed heavily in the selection of the U.S. IOI team. First, time was very short, which made it impossible to give all students in the U.S. an equal chance at making the team. Second, there was a quick response from one area of the U.S. (North Carolina and Virginia) that had an abundant supply of former ICPSC champions. Barbara Larson at Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology, in Alexandria, Virginia e-mailed me a list of her best prospects, as did Patsy Hester at Enloe High School in Raleigh, NC, and Harold Reiter at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Other names were suggested, but in the end three of the IOI members selected came from North Carolina and one from Virginia. This made it practical for them to get together for one practice session in May. Harold Reiter invited the team to stay at his home, and they used computers at a nearby company for a two day training session.

All team expenses for IOI'92 while in Germany would be paid for by the German government. Getting there, however, would not, and, it turned out, finding support for the air fare costs (~$3,000) was not as easy as I had expected. Contacts at NSF and the Department of Education suggested that our best bet was not with them but with private companies, so I sent out requests for support to two well know software firms. I was sure that they would jump at the chance to pick up the air fare in exchange for being recognized as the sponsor of the first U.S. team to the International Olympiad in Informatics. We were even willing to wear T-Shirts with their company logo on the front. We waited patiently for a reply. One firm never gave us one even after repeated reminders and many promises that a decision was close at hand. The other said, "We get all kinds of good proposals asking for support and we can't fund them all. Sorry." Harold Reiter was able to get American Airlines to give the team a reduced fare, and we ended up paying for the tickets ourselves. But given the tremendous opportunity to participate in this event, the cost to each ($500) was well worth it.

On July 10, 1992, David Datta, the deputy team leader from Kenosha, Wisconsin, and I met three of the team members for the first time in person at the departure gate in Chicago's O'Hare as we headed for Germany. It wasn't hard to spot two of them, as both Rusty and Mike are well over 6 feet tall, and even sitting down they tower over the pack. Russell Hunt and Mike Prior had just graduated from Enloe High School in Raleigh, NC and are headed for MIT in the Fall. Nathan Bronson, the third team member, was from Parkwood HS in Monroe, NC, had won the ICPSC Senior "C" Division in April, and will go to Duke University. Shawn Smith from Oakton, Virginia, our final team member and a freshman at Rice University, had already flown to Czechoslovakia with his family and would be meeting up with us in Bonn.

I'm sure none of us had any idea of the amount of planning and preparation that had gone into the International Olympiad. We got our first hint of the Germans' attention to detail when we arrived at the train station in Bonn after a two-hour trip from the airport in Frankfort. Two young high school girls with pink scarves and waving IOI'92 posters greeted us and escorted us onto the subway and off to the Gustav-Stresemann Institute where we would be staying for the next ten, activity packed, days. We were each given a ten day pass to the subway system in Bonn, a telephone card for free phone calls, an attractive green and purple IOI'92 backpack, the keys to our rooms and 50DM (Deutsch Marks) for spending money.

We had arrived on Saturday, and it would be four days before the first day of the competition. In the meantime the daily schedule of activities began on Monday with a reception hosted by the Mayor of Bonn, opening ceremonies at the Castle Birlinghoven, lunch on the terrace, a tour of the German National Research Center for Mathematics and Computer Science, followed by an evening party with Dixieland music. With 50 countries participating and six people in each delegation, roughly 300 people were being hosted at these events. Nevertheless, all the events were carried off with German efficiency and style.

Tuesday was another full day, with a reception hosted by the Minister of Education and Culture at the Parliament building in Dusseldorf, followed by a visit to a local art museum. By Wednesday, everyone was ready for the first day of competition. All delegation leaders and deputy leaders (called the jury) gathered together at 6:00 AM Wednesday morning to begin the careful selection of the first contest problem. Each team leader had already submitted two problems for possible use in the contest - - all problems being algorithmic. These problems were examined by the scientific committee made up of computer science professionals from the host country. They tested the problems and selected two sets of three problems each -- one set for each of the two contest days. After reading the three problems and discussing their merits, the jury selected by vote the first problem of the competition.

English was the official language of the competition. However, each student had to be able to read the problem in his/her native language. So, once the problem was selected, the team leaders and deputy team leaders from non-English countries began translating the problem. I estimate that there were approximately 35 different native languages represented. Everything stayed on schedule, and by 10:00 AM the contest was ready to begin. Each participant had his/her own computer supplied by IBM or Siemans, with Turbo Pascal, Turbo C, QuickBasic, and Logo already installed. Nearly 200 identical systems were spread out in six different rooms. Now, each student had exactly five hours to solve the first problem.

At precisely 3:00 PM all computers were turned off, and students handed in a disk at the door containing a copy of their program. The contestants filed out of the rooms with looks of amusement, amazement, bewilderment, pain, and relief. Each student had an appointed time to return with his/her team leader and they would meet with a coordinator supplied by Germany at this time to evaluate the students solution and award points. Nate Bronson was first up for the United States. Each coordinator had a score sheet and a disk of files to run against the program. The source code was not examined -- only the output of the program. Points were awarded for a list of eigth items, including: does it display input data properly; does it write the solution to the output file; does it construct all possible solutions; were the technical constraints completely obeyed? A perfect score was 100. Nate's program was perfect.

It took several hours to examine all 170 programs, signaling the end of the first day of competition. Mike and Rusty each received 85 points and Shawn a perfect 100. The jury, which was the final arbiter in all disputes over scoring, met late into the evening to review the results and handle any complaints. There was one misinterpretation by several students on how to handle input data that was out of bounds. The scientific committee agreed to change their initial position on this point, since what the students had done in this case was what many of us would also have done. This demonstrates that even as carefully reviewed as this problem had been, it is difficult to state a problem that is completely free of ambiguity.

The next day began with a three hour bus ride to Heidelberg followed by a guided tour of the Heidelberg Castle, the romantic city, and old university. Lunch was served on a boat trip on the way down the Neckar river to the town of Neckarstein. From there we boarded busses for a short trip to a computer graphics demonstration at the publishing house of Springer-Verlag.

Friday, the second and last competition day, was a repeat of Wednesday with one exception the three problems we had to choose from were more difficult. Since many students had scored 100 points in the first round, we wanted to make sure the task was sufficiently tough to separate out the very best. We chose the most difficult one, and it turned out to be about right.

There were two more activity filled days, including a tour of Cologne's famous cathedral, a walk to Beethoven's house in Bonn, a visit to WDR Germany's biggest TV-studio, and a walk in the Seven Mountains followed by a boat ride down the Rhine from Koningswinter to Bonn. The students relaxed during these trips and began to mix. The Asian teams still tended to keep together but I hardly saw my students on these trips. The Chinese team leader, with whom I talked on several occasions, wondered if I really had a team. He had never seen us all together. The U.S team members were usually off with students from England, Australia, or South Africa and occasionally with the two young women from the Netherlands. Of the 170 students present, only 7 were women, and we all wished there were more. The two Dutch women had outgoing personalities and attracted lots of attention. On one particularly long bus ride, they went up and down the aisles attaching home-made devices to the button holes of unsuspecting students to give them something to work on - how do you get this thing off? I have since learned that letters have already been exchanged between friends made at IOI'92.

Equity among men and women was the only point that caused the slightest division among the team leaders. It had been a concern at the last IOI'91 in Greece and a recommendation had come out of the that Olympiad: "Girls should be strongly encouraged to participate." The Netherlands felt that their women were just as good as their men and had always put two men and two women on their team. They felt that every country should try harder to bring women to the competition, and they formally proposed that each country have a mixed team with at least one girl. Furthermore, if they could not bring at least one woman, they could bring only three boys rather than four. I felt that this was one way to actually get more participation by women and supported the proposal, as did 12 other countries. But more team leaders felt this was not practical, since the difference in interest and ability between men and women in their country was too great and they would not be able to find women who would be competitive in this activity. The proposal failed probably due to the strong opposition voiced by the team leader from Argentina -- a woman.

The award ceremony was held on Monday at the Castle Birlinghoven. It began with a quartet of German high school students playing Beethoven, followed by speeches from the Minister of Education, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, and the Director of the German National Institute for Research in Mathematics and Computer Science (GMD). The 41 bronze medal winners were announced, and they walked to the front to receive their medals followed by the 31 silver medal winners. The 13 gold medal winners were introduced one at a time and given gifts ranging from Apple PowerBook computers to HP laser printers -- approximately $1,500 in value for each student. The rules called for a prize distribution of approximately 1 gold to 2 silver to 3 bronze, with the total number of medals not to exceed half the number of participants. The jury had decided on the cutoff scores to achieve this goal. All except one of those who received the gold medal had scored a perfect 200 points, and he scored a close 198. The gold medal winners were:

Niklas Een                 Sweden
Fredrik Huss               Sweden
Pinit Asavanuchit          Thailand
Jittat Fagcharoephon       Thailand
BomJun Kim                 South Korea
Viet NguyenTuan            Viet Nam
Nathan Bronson             United States
Shawn Smith                United States
Matej Ondrusek             Czechoslovakia
Peter Laszlo               Hungary
Gao Chen                   China
Xing Wu                    China
Yunhe Yang                 China
I was especially happy that two of the U.S. team members had won a gold medal on our first try. All of the other gold medal winning countries, except Korea, had participated in the competition from its beginnings in Bulgaria in 1989. Thirteen countries competed in the first IOI. The second IOI was held Byellorussia, in 1990, with 24 countries, and the third IOI was held in Greece in 1991 with 25 countries. This year the size doubled to 50 participating countries and 5 observing countries.

A buffet-lunch on the terrace followed the awards, and all the students received a collection of goodies in an attractive black IBM duffel bag to go along with their certificates of participation. Throughout the ceremonies pictures were taken by the German press, TV stations, and many proud team leaders. An air balloon was resting on the back lawn ready to take the winners airborne. Unfortunately, wind conditions were not safe enough to risk a flight, but the afternoon was a marvelous finale to ten wonderful days at IOI'92. This will be a tough Olympiad to follow. IOI'93 is scheduled for Argentina in October of 1993.

Don T. Piele
USA Team Leader
University of Wisconsin-Parkside
Kenosha, WI 53141-2000
Phone: 414-595-2231
Fax: 414-595-2056