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China Wins its First Olympic Gold - in Math

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on July 22, 2008

The athletes are getting ready for the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing on August 8. The mathletes are already done – and the Chinese are the big winners. According to this report from Xinhua, China’s team of five high school students was the top performers at the 49th annual International Mathematical Olympiad, a week-long competition that drew 535 contestants and concluded in Madrid on Monday. The Russians came in second and the Americans came in third. (India didn’t do so well, scoring a few bronze medals and finishing a distant 31st overall.)

Of course it’s not news that Chinese students take math very, very seriously. A few years ago, I interviewed a bunch of middle school students in Guangzhou, really impressive kids who could talk with a foreigner whom they had never met in almost flawless English. Like many ambitious Chinese families, their parents were sending them to after-school classes, one of them training for the Math Olympics. They were going to do more Math Olympics training over the summer break, too.

All that said, the U.S. still has a big advantage when it comes to education that promotes the ability to think creatively, something that Chinese educators understand and are trying to address. That will take years. But, as the country’s victory in Madrid shows, there’s no denying that China’s education system is doing something right.

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Reader Comments

Carlos A. Sosa

July 23, 2008 02:37 PM

Peruvian team last among 20 first... but our educational system is weak compared to other Latam Countries.

Just an example regional distribution of top 20 :


China, Korea, Thai, RD_Kr, Taiw, Jap, Viet.

Rusia, Hung, Pol, Bul, Ukr, Rom, Serb, Ger.

Midle East

Iran, Turk.


Usa, Bra, Per.




July 23, 2008 03:03 PM

The results for the Indians are a big surprise. To hear all the brash talks coming from India, or actually the India-promoters from the Indian community in the US, one would think for sure Indians has by far the best science education institutions and the most gifted students in the world.

Gary Schultz

July 23, 2008 03:12 PM

All teams fielded six students in this contest. China had five gold medals and one silver. Russia earned six gold medals but a lower overall point score than China. The USA earned four golds and two silvers. One of the Americans and two of the Chinese posted perfect scores; no other competitors did.


July 23, 2008 04:36 PM

It's good for Harvard, MIT, Princeton too! Most of these Chinese winners will head for the Ph.D. programs there in a few years.


July 23, 2008 09:30 PM

Most students in U.S team are Asians or Europeans.

Henry L.

July 23, 2008 10:44 PM

hey, no posters from the Indians?!? they'll probably come up with excuses like they are too busy conquering the world with their world class IT skills.


July 24, 2008 04:30 AM

To Henry's reply: Yes, we Indians suck in maths & science and Americans (or where ever you are from) are brilliants. What have you got against Indians? They are average as everyone...sometimes you excel and sometime you don't.

Congratulations to the winners!


July 24, 2008 08:05 AM

Actually, there IS denying that China’s education system is doing something right. Just as is indicated in the column, students of Asian countries are strongly involved in after-school learning programs (academies, tutors and such). In Korea, this has reached the extent to which they have been accused by the United Nations of torture, and having lived there for 4 years and seen the extent to which students are forced to study 4- 6 hours each day ON TOP OF SCHOOL, the issue here is the LACK of a good education.

In short, kudos to the Chinese for the win in the Olympics, but the observer should be careful - judging an educational system is more complicated than viewing the results of one (idiosyncratic) competition.

Henry L.

July 24, 2008 08:45 AM

@Siva. I apologize for the remark earlier. I have nothing against any Indians but I just got frustrated after reading the Indian posters from BW "Why India will beat China". Seems to me that some Indians think that they are somehow more brilliant than anyone else and especially to the Chinese.


July 24, 2008 09:53 AM

@Fred here's the difference:
Americans after-school learning programs includes: working casual at McDonalds,Walmart,practice soccer,football,baseball, to name the few
While for
Chinese: math and science
bottom line: nothing is torture as long as there's desire to do any.
For Chinese though, working after-school is torture.

Zhihong Zhu

July 24, 2008 01:14 PM

As a Chinese, I was very glad to learn this result. This is a paid-off of how much we value education.

It is a cultural traditoin. Not only China Team did good job for having won 14 championships over past 22 years in Maths Olympia, but also, most of the US Team members for Maths Olympia are Chinese American kids. This is not the only case in Maths, but also in Chemistry, maybe Physics...

Do not forget, sometimes when your kids social with people to build up leadership skill, other kid may study. No pain, no gain. It's fair.


July 24, 2008 03:01 PM

Chinese students not only do well in math, but also physics and chemistry. Most of these winners end up in US for their careers.

I personally knew 2 kids from China who were the winners. One is now teaching in a US university and another one works in Microsoft. The guy in microsoft finished 2 master degrees in 3 years, one in biochemistry and another in computer science.


July 24, 2008 03:13 PM

What's not surprising is the contempt the Chinese feel from the Indians and vice versa.
How about a truce? How about treating each other, and every one else for that matter, with basic dignity and respect.
Seems like a no-brainer, but I best not hold my breath.
By all means be proud -but not at the expense of others.

Ding Wei

July 24, 2008 03:17 PM

Another proud Chinese with a traditional Chinese name 'Henry', lol! Learn to be proud of your country and culture, competetions will be won and lost, but not culture and pride!

Damian P

July 24, 2008 04:42 PM

I agree with you to a point Fred, but I think one of the underlying factors is that the Chinese children are a lot more into education. They WANT to learn and being smart is not frowned down upon when you are in the junior high school-high scool age. Here in America, from what I can remember in high school is that the smart students were always picked on and made fun of, which doesn't lead one to want to be smart and have no friends at that age. I think it also has to do with the family and what values are instilled into them as they are growing up; emphasizing the value of getting good grades and actually wanting to learn as much as you can versus just squeeking by in order to have a "life" and friends at that age. We have a very good educational system here in the U.S. and of course there are problems, which every country has; no one is perfect, however I think it has more to do with the way we raise our children than anything else. I don't think any race is smarter than another, it is soley based upon the individual, the family culture, school culture etc...

Andrew K

July 24, 2008 10:56 PM

Indians are worldwide famous on mouth ... all knows.


July 24, 2008 11:25 PM

@Bob: Brilliance is everywhere. Winning in Olympiad doesn't mean one country is better than the other.. its a global economy.

Its innovation that counts.. creativity, imagination are the hallmarks of today's world.

Dont know why people go the extreme of comparing Indian vs. chinese vs. American Vs. Europeans.. Looks like lot of them have time twiddling their thumbs.

Chalermpol W.

July 25, 2008 01:39 AM

Anybody noticed kids from Thailand? Not only those from India and China are the top nods. It's just the matter of time that we'll pick up those top nod kids around the world very soon (only if we have a very good leaders in the field of education)


July 25, 2008 09:43 AM

Not surpurised about India's results. I dont think anyone in India has even heard about the math olympiad. All the math kids are too busy studying for the IIT entrance exams...


July 25, 2008 02:10 PM

@Cheri: No body raise the expectations on the Indians but the Indians themselves. After spending years bragging about your superior education systems and brain power in your attempts to steal high tech jobs from the West, shoulding you Indians be expected to live up to your claims at least once in a while? Clearly ranking way behind Thailand, North Korea and Vietnam, it takes a lot of imagination and creativity for people to take Indian claims seriously, doesn't it?


July 28, 2008 01:52 PM

Congrats to the winners! Hard work pays.

It’s quite shameful that well-educated people reading BW articles are secular in their thinking. Seeing hatred in their words makes me fear, as after being educated we are talking in prejudice. Why are we generalizing comments on countries & its people by their personal bad acquaintances?
Well it’s a global economy, we should think globally. If you see in the past then each person/country on earth has contributed and in future is responsible for improvement of human life.


July 28, 2008 03:00 PM

@Andrew K, You guys should compete in the IIT entrance exams & you will find the Math Olympics far easier. So dont worry about Indians being famous on the mouth, they would get by even without winning medals.


July 28, 2008 07:19 PM

China did excellent job (first place) on just finished 39th International Physics Olympiad - Hanoi, Vietnam (28/07). All of its participant get Gold medals. Canada and US team members are also pretty much consist of Chinese. Taiwan is in second place.


July 28, 2008 09:15 PM

So Much Indian bitching? Well for all those guys here bitching about indians. Math olympiads in india are not that popular compared to China, infact many schools actively discourage their students from entering it as it affects their grades in school. Indian universities care more about School grades than Olympiad merits. Sad, but true. So the indian kids who kickass, do it knowing they risk screwing up their school finals. I am myself an National Olympiad ranker


July 29, 2008 04:59 PM

@Raman, I myself is an international physics Olympiad player, I am a chinese. Frankly speaking, the regular workload in high school is nothing compared to Olympiad ones. It is for the kids with extra brainpower. It is optional in china if you can't handle regular homework/projects or even school grades are bothering you.

b dutta

July 30, 2008 10:58 AM

I am an indian and I understand that other education systems and or culture are better than us. The load mothed people who speak out in the media are
mostly not much knowledgeable (mostly they are journalists rather than mathematicians/engineers).
Blame our democracy and the loud mothed people, but don't blame everyone.


July 30, 2008 07:14 PM

At the 40th Chemistry Olympiads held in Budapest, Hungary on July 21, 2008, all 4 Chinese students got gold medal, again put China in 1st place, please see

So, Math, Physics and Chemistry champion all goes to China.


August 2, 2008 11:29 PM

Winning a special Olympic is great. But generalizing the results to a sound education system or admirable tration or culture is way overboard. People think we are math geniuses. Only we know we spend way too much time doing repetitive math exercises, in school, after school. Our mis-guided parents and teachers blindly focus(?) our efforts in math and science while mostly ignoring other trainings that are importent for a well-balanced development for the children, such as interpersonal skills, communication skills, and independent thinking, etc. As a result, we produce and supply the world many high paid slaves, like engineers and programers, and few masters (managers & CEOs, system architects, etc). We are not well trained to handle mental stresses and human conflicts. We can follow orders very well and plug the numbers in established formulas, but it's hard for us the make independent decisions when there is no instruction. So, please look at the competition results just what they are, superior results in one specific discipline. There is really no extrapolation on the merits of our education system or our traditions or culture. Be proud if you feel so, but don't demean other people.


August 5, 2008 12:55 PM

RE: Manoj - "IIT entrance exams & you will find the Math Olympics far easier"

You are kidding, right? If you truly believe it, then I am afraid you probably won't do well in your IT exams for lack of reasonable logical thinking skills

OCP Certified


August 6, 2008 12:21 AM

Congratulations to the winners!!

If students uncover their dreams and stick to them, they will achieve better than they donot have dreams or donot work hard during the process. No matter you would like to be a mathematician, an economicst, a fashion designer, a restaurant owner, a news anchor, or a politician, you need to have a dream and stick to it.

As a Chinese educator educated both in China and in the U.S., I totally agree with Chinesekid's opinion.

huang hang

August 8, 2008 11:37 AM

As a chinese,I worry about china's future because lots of talented chinese and rich chinese are move to the U.S and like to become second class citizens in the U.S.


August 9, 2008 10:04 AM

First time I heard about IMO was when Bob Costa mentioned Vietnam won 1 medal total in Olympic competitions but won ~130 in IMO since it started to compete in 1974. What is the big deal when countries like China and India won in these competitions? Together they have close to 40% of the earth's population.


August 17, 2008 11:48 PM

Take a look at for learning math with fun.


August 21, 2008 04:58 PM

Quick question.. How many students from the USA team are from Indian origin?

Chris Todd

August 22, 2008 10:45 PM


They need to first sort out their inferior complex, habit of self-denial, self-delusion....

I have never ever heard an Indian admit that they sucks...and therefore they do their best to make sure they don't suck anymore in the future...

Something Indians should learn from the Japanese..


September 5, 2008 11:31 AM

Chinese just simply smart.
The 3 perfect score in latest IMO are all chinese. Although one from USA (Alex Zhai), in fact, he is chinese original.

No trash talking pls. Ask your mind...


December 8, 2008 06:42 PM

RE: the China vs India thing. You guys are all kidding, right? You do KNOW that what IS important in the FIELD of mathematics is the actual discovery/development of new mathematical theorems and instruments, right? This is where India excels and has excelled for a very long time now - there is a Looooong history of Indian ingeniuty in these fields. If you know anything about Mathematics as a subject per say, you know this is the REAL important stuff - it's called mathematical "creativity", and Indians DO excel at it. Not some rote-learning exercises where kids are drilled for 12 hours a day to "memorize" answers or basic techniques. The Indian education system isn't sufficiently homogenous enough to deal with "mathlete" type competitions. You need a certain amount of standardisation to become proficient in these meaningless exercises - and for India it ain't exactly top of the list anyway.


December 8, 2008 06:51 PM

RE: the China vs India thing. You guys are all kidding, right? You do KNOW that what IS important in the FIELD of mathematics is the actual discovery/development of new mathematical theorems and instruments, right? This is where India excels and has excelled for a very long time now - there is a Looooong history of Indian ingeniuty in these fields. If you know anything about Mathematics as a subject per say, you know this is the REAL important stuff - it's called mathematical "creativity", and Indians DO excel at it. Not some rote-learning exercises where kids are drilled for 12 hours a day to "memorize" answers or basic techniques. The Indian education system isn't sufficiently homogenous enough to deal with "mathlete" type competitions. You need a certain amount of standardisation to become proficient in these meaningless exercises - and for India it ain't exactly top of the list anyway.


December 9, 2008 12:52 AM

To Jahangir
The truth hurt and not amount of lie from your part can change the fact that India is not the super-power like jingoistic or "jingo" as Hindu Nationalist drone like to call himself!


December 11, 2008 09:14 AM

Nayak - when you learn something about mathematics and grow some semblance of maturity - get back to me. Plus, try to actually understand what I wrote above. Here's ten cents for the coffee, son.


December 11, 2008 11:39 PM

Be it be Chinese or Indians - US seems to be taking them away. Do check out the the US team at the IMO website . The team contains one person of Chinese origin and two of Indian origin. It is the collective contribution of bright minds from nooks and corners of the global village - which is going to make the world a better place.


December 12, 2008 02:10 AM

You only say those long and tiresome word because India did not win so you have to put down the whole event and find excuse for your own defeat. Nothing news here about India jingoist in the net! Sore loser!


December 29, 2008 08:55 AM


As an Indian i think it is very very important for US to continue attarcting the brightest people in the world. It is responsibility of world's intelligent people to be in the US.Ultimately life is meaningless when you know after all these hardwork if you can't make it to the US you as well don't study also.The fascination & imagination of US or UK is what motivates indian or chinese kids to excel,as responsible parents keep that motivation alive.


October 12, 2009 03:58 PM

I am Thailand living in US. I think Thailand in many competitions have been doing well in top of course strong educational culture has a lot to do with it even though our education system can use some big improvement.

Well I would expect to see more progress on most of the countries especially Indian and others trying to outdo others and see watch Thailand as well. We have produced very winners in many areas including sports like Woman Volleyball(2009 Asian Champ beating China), tennis, golf, and many in education, robotic competition, chemistry, math etc.
Good luck to all.


November 29, 2009 01:42 AM

All these comments...basically represent western ideas of marketing:Branding.
So based on what country(Brand) you come from you will perform accordingly.
Fact is humans are individuals, you'll have a brilliant guy here and there, and you'll have a not so brilliant guy here and there- no matter what country.
But it's very tempting to bragg.

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BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.

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