On Competition

In the December 2010 issue of Wired, Jason Fagone writes about teens who perform in competitive Algorithmic Olympics (“Teen Mathletes Do Battle at Algorithm Olympics”). The piece primarily focuses on two kids: Neal Wu (from the United States) and the heavyweight favorite to win the competition, Gennady Korotkevich (from Belarus). I read the story with great interest, not least because I competed in a number of academic competitions when I was in high school and college as well. Below, I highlight some interesting passages and then comment on academic competitions as a whole (from my experience).

A description of Gennady Korotkevich, comparing him to Neal Wu:

A tall kid with skinny arms, short brown hair, and a bashful smile, Gennady Korotkevich started competing at IOI when he was 11. When Wu was 11, he didn’t even know about programming. At last year’s IOI in Bulgaria, Korotkevich upset Wu and everyone else to take first place, becoming the youngest winner in the contest’s 20-year history. This year Korotkevich is back again, at the ripe age of 15, looking to deprive Wu of his last shot at winning IOI. Next year Wu will be in college and therefore ineligible.

Approved languages at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI):

The three approved IOI programming languages are Pascal, C, and C++. The Western kids, including Wu, tend to use C++, the most modern and streamlined of the three. But Pascal still has a following in Eastern Europe and Asia, even though coding in it is like “building a car with just a screwdriver and a wrench,” says Troy Vasiga, this year’s IOI chair.

To get a sense of how competitive the landscape is, this passage about China at IOI shed some light:

China’s approach to IOI is proof of just how serious the contest has become and how tied up it is in notions of national prestige and economic competitiveness. To earn a spot on the Chinese team, a coder has to beat 80,000 of his compatriots in a series of provincial elimination rounds that last an entire year. Then he—the competitors are almost all male—has to sit on a stage in front of hundreds of onlookers and answer questions in English like “How will you show the traditional culture of China to the foreign friends?” says Yi Wu, a member of China’s team. China is an extreme example, but pretty much every kid roaming the Waterloo campus this week has beaten hundreds or thousands of countrymen just to get here. Even the losers are brilliant.

The article has good descriptions of the problems faced by the competitors at this year’s IOI event (including the approach that Wu and Korotkevich take to solve the problems):

Every year at IOI, there’s a question so difficult that it humbles even the adults who try to crack it. This year, that question comes on day two. Called SaveIt, it’s a classic ad hoc problem, not solvable with any standard algorithm. SaveIt asks the coder to calculate a table of the shortest distances through a large transportation network consisting of 1,000 cities and 36 hubs. Then, to get the full 100 points, the coder has to cram that table into an incredibly small space and decompress it without losing any information. It’s as if someone gave you an inflated beach ball and said, here, pack this into a cookie jar. If you find the air nozzle, it’s simple. Otherwise, it’s impossible.

After finishing the piece, my impression of this competition is that it is severely stressful for the competitors, and there’s tremendous pressure to perform (not least because many students are representing their home country). I wish the article went more in depth about how the competitors felt about competing at this level (not how they solved the problems, but what the competition did to their stress levels, mental acuity, etc.). In high school, I competed at a number of such events as well: Math Counts (at the regional level), Academic Decathlon (regional and state level, where I won the Super Quiz category at the state championship my senior year), Science Bowl, and Quiz Bowl (regional, state, and national level; our team won second in the state championship twice). I took these competitions seriously, of course, but I never let them interfere with my priorities: doing well in my course work. I personally knew of coaches from other schools that made these events a brutal chore: long study hours, regimented practiced schedules, etc. And while I believe that a strong work ethic is pivotal to doing well in these competitions, I retrospectively look and think that the moment the competition stopped being fun and became a chore, this was the moment I had to step back and re-prioritize my options.

Reading Jason Fagone’s piece, I couldn’t help but think that the majority of the students competing at this level aren’t having much fun: the event is stressful, ultra-competitive, and while the rewards may be incredible (world-wide exposure for placing in the top ten or twenty), at what cost is it worth it? If these students are losing sleep, sacrificing their interactions with friends, and stop paying attention to their health, I argue that the opportunity cost of doing well (or simply competing at that level) may be too high. Now, of course there are students that derive fun from such intense competition (Gennady Korotkevich strikes me as one of those types), I absolutely do not believe that the same can be said for everyone.

I’m worried for some of those kids: the sacrifices they’ve had to make, the burn-out they may experience. It would be interesting to see how the IOI has influenced them in years to come: what college courses they take, what extracurricular activities they pursue, what jobs they take after they graduate from a university.

Speaking of future endeavors of the students, the article mentions that Neal Wu is attending Harvard; one of the courses he is taking is Math 55, a course so demanding it has its own Wikipedia entry:

Problem sets are expected to take from 24 to 60 hours per week to complete. Of those students who could handle the workload, many became math or physics professors, including many members of the Harvard Math Department such as Benedict Gross and Joe Harris; also, Harvard physics professor Lisa Randall ’84 and Harvard economics professor Andrei Shleifer ’82. Moon Duchin ’97 was one of the 17 women to complete the class between 1990 and 2006.

More interestingly: one past student of Math 55 included Bill Gates, who said the experience of taking a class “where everybody had an 800 on their SAT and 5 on their AP” exam was a “neat experience”.

Math 55 is a two-semester sequence of courses, titled Honors Abstract Algebra and Honors Real and Complex Analysis. The course sounds like a hard-core version of ACM 95/100 (three quarter sequence; course description here) that I took at Caltech. And while I’ve never had weeks where I spent 60 hours per week on an ACM 100 problem set, there were at least a couple of weeks where I devoted 30 hours to finish a problem set. And while these problem sets were extremely demanding, the fact that collaboration was allowed (nay, encouraged) made the course a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise. I remember finishing one problem set early and going to a study room in the library, the night before the problem set is due, and teaching the undergraduates (the course had both undergraduates and graduates) everything I knew in a span of six to seven hours. I love teaching and helping others; this was the fun factor for me, many a time: seeing other students comprehend the concepts as I explained them.

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What are your thoughts on this article and competition in general? Have you ever competed at a high-level (academically, in particular) and experienced stress and burn-out? Share your thoughts in the comments.

2 thoughts on “On Competition

  1. I participated in the IOI (‘Algorithm Olympics’, apparently) this year, winning a bronze medal.

    To be honest, I found it one of the least stressful exams I’ve done. In most subjects, you can always cram as much study as possible the night before, or spend hours memorising content. In the IOI, it’s a 5 hour exam, so time isn’t much of an issue, and the questions are *hard*. By its very nature, you need to be relaxed to perform well. You won’t solve some of these problems by concentrating; often, the solution will come to you in a moment of distraction. Stressing won’t help you to do better.

    In terms of studying, yes, we study. But it’s not intense study — it’s a few hours a week, over many years. It’s not the sort of thing that gets in the way of friendship or physical exercise. If anything, you make friends from it.

    I think it’s interesting that you classify it as ‘ultra-competitive’. The attitude that most contestants seemed to have is “I will go in, do my best, and hope it counts.” Furthermore, people acknowledge that because there are only six problems, there’s a large element of luck. If you don’t happen to see the solution to a problem, that can drop you dozens of ranks. I think most people are just glad for the opportunity to compete and meet people from all over the world. I, for one, found it extraordinarily fulfilling and enjoyable.

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