The First Western IMO

The International Math Olympiad started in Eastern Europe in 1959. Romania was the first host country. The Olympiad grew and only in 1976 did it move outside the Eastern bloc. The competition was held in Austria.

I was on the Soviet team in 1975 and 1976, so I was able to compare competitions held in Eastern vs. Western countries. Of course, the Austrian Olympiad was much better supported financially, but today I want to write about the differences in how our team was prepped.

Before our travel to Austria the Soviet team members were gathered in a room with strangers in suits for a chat. I assumed that we were talking to the KGB. They gave us a series of instructions. For example, they told us not to leave the campus during the competition, to always walk in groups, and to avoid talking to kids from countries that are enemies of the USSR. They warned us that they would be watching, and I was scared to death.

Now that I am older and wiser, I understand that their goal was to frighten us. Our team traveled with adult supervisors, who were trusted by the KGB. But for several days during the grading period of the competition, our supervisors were not allowed to see us. So the KGB wanted us to be too afraid to be very adventurous when we were left on our own.

In addition, the KGB had a Jewish problem. In general, Jews were not allowed to go abroad. I had many Jewish friends who qualified for the pre-IMO math camp where the team was chosen, but who were not able to get on the IMO because of delays with their travel documents. Some local bureaucrats were eager to impress the KGB and therefore held up visas for Jewish students, preventing them from being on the team. But the team selection process itself wasn’t yet corrupt in 1976. So every year despite the efforts of the system, some young Jewish mathematicians would end up on the team.

Before 1976, the Olympiad was in the Eastern bloc, so the KGB wasn’t quite so concerned about having Jewish members on the team. But Austria was not only a Western country, it was also the transition point for Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. The speed with which the IMO moved their competition to a Western country was much faster than the Soviet bureaucratic machine could build a mechanism for completely preventing Jews from joining the team.

One very strong candidate, Yura Pass, didn’t get his documents, but two other Jewish boys made it on to the team that was going to Austria. They were joking that they would be the only Soviet Jews who would go to Austria and actually come back. They did come back, only to go forward later: both are now math professors working in the US.

Because we had Jewish members on our team, it gave the KGB a special extra reason to scare us. But the biggest pressure was to win. We were told that 1976 was the most important year for the Soviet team to be the best. We were told that capitalist countries spread rumors that the judges in Eastern bloc countries favored the Soviet team and that the relative success of the Soviet team throughout the years had not been fully deserved. Now that the competition was in Austria, the suits told us, the enemies of the USSR were hoping for the downfall of the Soviet team. Our task was to prove once and for all that the Soviet students were the best at math, and that the rumors were unfounded. We had to win the team competition not only to prove ourselves, but also to clear the name of the Soviet team for all the previous years.

We did have a very strong team. The USSR came out first with 250 points, followed by the UK with 214 points and the USA with 188 points. Out of nine gold medals, we took four.

We could have gotten one more gold medal if Yura Pass had been allowed on the team. Yura was crushed by the machine’s treatment of Jews and soon afterwards quit mathematics.



  1. Garret Merkley:

    Thank you for the post. I myself lived in Russia for two years. It was just recently though. From 2006 – 2008.

    Are you still in Russia? I would love to talk and learn more about how Russia. I love the Russian people and love the language. I try to speak it as much as I can but it is hard. Not very many people speak Russian here in the U.S. Mostly spanish.

    By the way my name is Garret.

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  2. the IMO « a desperate attempt to keep in touch!:

    […] (little digression: for an interesting IMO anecdote, see this.) […]

  3. Fedor Solodvnik:

    I am wondering how unfair are Jewish People. One potential USSR IMO team member called ” Yura Pass” was replaced for another Jewish People called Borja Solomjak because of whatever reason. Despite that fact the author is mentioning that the Jewish People were suffering the pressure from KGB.
    Hopefully all of them are now in USA and have nothing to do with KGB.
    Hopefully KGB has nothing to do with the mentioned People due to the same fact.

    There are many Jewish People from other countries like Middle Asia/ Middle East.
    Those are not showing so excellent results in Mathematics.
    Maybe You have to mention that the in addition to YOur personal capabilities the russian civilization provided You and the above Jewish people to achieve significant results in mathematics
    Regards, Fedor Solodovnik

  4. Tanya Khovanova:


    “Yura Pass” didn’t get to IMO because someone didn’t approve his visas. He was replaced by an alternate. Solomyak wasn’t an alternate. He was on the team independently of Pass.

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