Finding x: A Look into the World of Competitive Mathematics
by Nicole Allison Kua Sy
SA21 Section P
Cheering crowds, hyped up athletes, drums lining the bleachers, opposing players sitting with their own teams and going through various plays and strategies. As a former high school basketball player, this is the scene I am quite used to, if not fully comfortable in, when I enter a gym on game day. Tensions are quite high, especially with rival teams about to take the court, not only between the two opposing teams but amongst the audience as well. Lines are clearly drawn and loyalties clearly defined with shirt color, pompoms, and other school-supporting paraphernalia. The seats in these kinds of events are occupied by students from the respective schools, and most of them are personally acquainted with one or more of the players, coming to the games as a sign of support to their friends. There is a sense of intimacy and fierce loyalty to the teams underlying the audience’s cheers and jeers, giving them more of a stake in the outcome of the game than one might initially perceive.
For this assignment I decided to deviate from the hyper-active sports world I am so acquainted with to delve deeper into the more academic world that my brother belongs to, and so I decided to be the ever-supportive sister and attend one of his math contests. The Metrobank MTAP Dep-Ed Math Challenge, one of the more recognized elementary and high school mathematics competitions in the country, is comprised of a series of contests, both individual and team-based, amongst many of the public and private schools nationwide. It’s a small sample of the mathematically-inclined, a peek into the world of competitive mathematics.
The scene that welcomed me as I got out of the car the morning of the sectoral round of the competition was a pretty chaotic one, with throngs of students, parents, and some teachers from the different private schools all crowded in the entrance hall of Philippine Science High School. The entrance hall was packed and abuzz with students trying to find their teammates and coaches trying to gather their teams around and not lose them in the writhing mass of moving bodies.
Although I was unnerved by the disorganization of everything, all around me were students who seemed not to be bothered at all. Even as the horde of people piled into the tiny auditorium, there was constant chatter and laughter. Most students and even parents seem to know each other, weaving in and out of their respective groups to greet other friends. All of it brings about a sense of community and friendliness, despite the competition.
The event, as mentioned, was quite disorganized. The auditorium could only accommodate one year level at a time, and meanwhile most of the other participants, their parents, and their coaches were forced to sit outside the auditorium on the floor for lack of anywhere else to go. Some of the more seasoned participants with their parents would leave first while it was not yet their turn and come back after having a bite to eat. Some of the waiting participants were, as one would expect, avidly training with practice problems, while others were simply chatting away with their friends or playing on their various gadgets and playing cards.
During the contest proper, I took the part of supportive sister in the audience, which was not quite what I expected. Instead of cheering and clapping, the audience consisted of parents and teachers taking note of the various questions- their means ranging from the more traditional pen and paper to the more sophisticated voice recorder. Not only that, parents also had their own spread sheets where they would track down the points for each team.
The teams were seated in front, and one can quickly distinguish the math jocks from the rest. They would be quite calmly reposed in their seats, while the rest were tenser. My brother Andrew actually pointed out this disparity in composure and activity across the different cliques.
The contest is comprised of three rounds: easy (to be solved mentally), average, and difficult. At the signal of the quiz master, teams are to start solving and write their answers on slips of paper within the given time limit. The proctors then collect them and submit the answer sheets to the panel. The judges would then raise a board with the answer for only the participants to see, and then dictate the teams that got it right for the scorer to record. At these times the atmosphere would become quite tense, the audience quieting down to listen. At the mention of the team’s number, concerned parties in the audience will let out sighs of relief, but there is hardly any applause in the duration of the contest. There is only applause when only a few teams are able to correctly answer a problem. A single question could be the difference between winning and losing, and a team that is leading can quite quickly fall through the ranks. It’s an altogether different kind of excitement as compared to the sporting competitions most of us are more used to.
The more nail-biting portion of the contest is one that is not always present: the do-or-die portion. This only occurs when two or more teams tied in points have exhausted all the tiebreaker questions. It is an amazing exhibition of mathematical skill and speed, with teams racing to raise their correct answer first. It is quick, silent, and decisive.
After the contest, the top three teams were awarded, which was a flurry of proud parents standing to take pictures of their children with their coaches. The participants themselves, presumably already used to these events, would casually chat with their friends.
All throughout the competition one can see the infinitely greater role of the audience than one would initially imagine. Much like sporting events, the audience feels that they have a great stake in the outcome of the competition, but in this case the stake is real. These parents serve as their children’s primary trainers, transcribing contest questions for training, looking up material online, some even reading up on the material themselves. I have seen my own parents do the same at home- spending several hours helping my brother train for his many contests. They have been to all of his international competitions, and after Andrew transferred to a school less supportive of his academic pursuits, my dad has taken greater responsibility over his training.
None of the participants in that auditorium could possibly look out into the audience, see their ever-supportive parents studiously taking notes and waiting for nearly a whole day, and honestly say that they are not loved. Such is a math kid parent’s love.