a guest post from an olympian

Last week I attended the launch of Science OlympiaNZ, a charitable trust set up as an umbrella group to support New Zealand’s various International Science Olympiad programs (& very generously supported by the Todd Foundation)Among the speakers was Max, a member of this year’s highly successful NZ International Biology Olympiad team. Max gave a great speech, & I enjoyed it so much that I asked if he would allow me to post it here as a guest blogAnd he did! Thanks, Max!!

I thought I’d start by explaining exactly what the International Biology Olympiad is, as I’ll admit I didn’t really know until last year. Firstly it’s international, as in 230 participants from over 60 countries, from Azerbaijan to Vietnam. Secondly, it’s to do with biology, the study of living things. Lastly, it is an Olympiad, which is sort of like the Olympics except that we were armed with calculators, scalpels and microscopes rather than shotputs, javelins, or ping pong bats. Instead of having rippling muscular bodies that epitomised human perfection, ours were often weedy, pimply & four-eyed. Instead of determining superiority by who could bench-press the most or flatten the other in an arm-wrestle, greatness was a measure of how many decimal places you could recite pi to (in my case 3.14 but I managed to beat most of them in an arm wrestle!). It was exams rather than sport, brains over brawn. A different kind of perfection, but no less elegant or respectable.

While there were many differences between the Olympiad and the Olympics, there were several similarities that should not be overlooked.

Firstly, the competitors at the IBO were elite, talented and driven. Just to get there they had to have won their own national Oympiads, and had not travelled half-way around the world to enjoy Japan’s excellent sushi; they were there to win. For example, the American team has over 20,000 students competing for just 4 spots on the team, while rumour has it that in China the IBO students get plucked from school at a very young age and are specifically groomed for the IBo at some sort of institution, where they learn about the birds and the bees in far too much detail for a five-year-old. Many teams receive scholarships to whatever university they choose.

Furthermore, the competition itself is intense. This is a test that has to differentiate between the smartest students in the world. It is almost a guarantee that you walk out of the exam feeling like a wreck. They purposely don’t give you enough time and questions are diabolical. Most students in the Olympiad are used to acing the tests they get at school, and then they get hit with a test in which 50% is a respectable score. It is also physically exhausting, with 6 hours of practical exam in one day, and 5 hours theory in another. The practical reminded me of a horror movie. We performed such tasks as dissecting caterpillars that we assumed were dead but which started wriggling violently when we started pulling their intestines out. We had to pull the heads off flies and grind up and study the paste. And at one stage the guy next to me badly cut his hand, splurting blood everywhere as medics stitched it up, while I was trying REALLY hard not to get distracted! We also spent time staining seeds, using a spectrometer to observe enzyme activity, used a microscope A LOT, DNA electrophoresis, chromatography, and the list goes on.

But perhaps the best thing about the Olympiad is also one of the best things about the Olympics. It has an amazing ability to unite and bring people together. People were hanging together from China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, and the USA was even getting on well with the rest of the world. I was being a bit harsh earlier in this talk when I said that everyone there was geeks; there were actually some really interesting, articulate, and surprisingly normal people. The competition cultivated great friendships amongst people who shared the same passion, and now I can say I know people from Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, and probably a few future Nobel laureates and the dud who will cure cancer. It is amazing to think what a network of the best biological minds in the world is capable of.

So how did I go? Firstly, as is probably quite obvious by now, my practical section was horrible. I tried a few sly shortcuts that should have paid off due to the intense time pressure, but they backfired badly. I knew I had to do really well in the theory to have any chance of getting a medal, which was quite worrying because I am usually way better at practicals than the theory. In the end, my theory did go quite well and I got a bronze medal. This statement makes me seem freakishly brilliant, as in 3rd best in the world, right? Well… not quite. The medal system works on a percentage basis, with the top 10% getting a Gold, next 20% getting Silver and next 30% getting Bronze. I finished 103 out of roughly 230 people, which was a performance I am very happy with. The people there were so amazingly smart I would have been glad to beat a single one of them, let alone over half of the competitors. My experience at the Olympiad reminds me of the Olympic creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the trumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

Finally I’d like to thank my sponsors and the volunteers at NZIBO who made this trip possible. If you hadn’t helped out I could have missed out on the trip of a lifetime, and a bullet train to the forefront of world science. I am truly indebted to you and if you ever need a good doctor (or perhaps engineer? I haven’t quite decided yet) you know where to look. 


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