And the winner goes… into politics?!?

What would happen if math Olympic medalists used their bright minds to try to lead local and central state institutions?

Four Prešov students shine in science around the world with outstanding projects.Four Prešov students shine in science around the world with outstanding projects. (Source: Milan Kapusta, TASR)

In July an e-mail from the head of a Slovak team of high school students, who had just returned from the International Math Olympics, landed in my inbox.

He would have liked the media to report on the one silver and three bronze medals that Michal Staník, Martin Melicher, Matej Urban and Dávid Pásztor won at this top competition though “I understand that this is not such an attractive topic as Sagan’s performance at the Tour de France.”

A few days later another piece of good news: Slovak students Jonáš Dujava and Ronald Doboš won two silver medals at this year’s International Physics Olympics. Róbert Jurčo added a bronze medal to the Slovak delegation's collection. Slovak high school students won two gold and two silver medals at the International Chemistry Olympics in Paris, thus achieving historically the best result in this competition for Slovakia. Andrej Kovács and Peter Rukovanský won gold medals and Samuel Novák and Michal Chovanec returned with a silver medal each. Congratulations to all of them!

But even if the head of the math team thinks that only “cool” athletes and competitions make headlines, the truth is that these types of international Olympics have been a matter of pride in all former communist countries for years. My home country Romania brags about being one the initiators of the International Math Olympics and hosting its first edition in 1959. Over the years it has won many medals and this year it made a comeback with one gold, two silver and three bronze medals, ranking 17th (Slovakia 39th) out of 112 teams. China and the United States dominated the competition this year.

No matter how amazing their results are, these young people are not an indicator of the quality or the performance of the education systems in Romania or Slovakia. These students come from a handful of high schools where their talent was spotted by a dedicated teacher ( one of Slovakia’s physicists even came from a vocational school) and attend special training sessions to prepare for these international Olympics.

Around them, the education system remains based on memorising facts rather than supporting curious minds, with most school labs lacking materials for experiments during chemistry or physics lessons and struggling to attract dedicated teachers.

I plan to look into how many such medalists have left their home country as soon as they finished high school, how many have returned and what they do. I try to imagine what would happen if some of these medalists used their bright minds to try to lead local and central state institutions in charge of education, science and research, healthcare or the environment.

There are some attempts already; for example a former medalist at the International Math Olympics is an opposition MP in Romania and wants to become the Mayor of Bucharest. Of course, it depends on personal qualities, but if you have to choose among those who represented your country at the top level abroad, whom would you prefer as prime minister: a former math/physics/chemistry whiz kid or a former ice hockey/football player?

Anca Dragu is a journalist with Radio Slovakia International, which is available in Bratislava in English on 98.9 FM at 6:30pm and 8:30pm and at The opinions expressed in this blog are her own.

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