There’s an international competition taking place this week and the top stars from teams around the globe are descending upon one city where they’ll go head-to-head to determine who will be crowned the new world champion – and it’s not the FIFA World Cup.

The event will be broadcast to fans around the world, but the competition will take place in Ekaterinburg, Russia, not in Sao Paolo. Plus, instead of playing soccer the contestants will solve as many high-level mathematical problems as possible in five hours with their computer programming prowess. The IBM Corp.-sponsored International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) is also known as the “Battle of the Brains” and the world finals are taking place July 25, starting at midnight eastern time. The contest has been sponsored by IBM since 1997 and organized by Baylor University and the Association for Computing Machinery.

But there will be something significantly different from this year’s world finals compared to the past 20 world finals – the University of Waterloo won’t be there to take part. The school, known for its computer science and mathematics prowess, had taken part in every world finals competition since 1993, tied only by the University of Warsaw for the number of consecutive appearances. Until last year, it was always the top Canadian team to enter the competition and it was the last North American team to win first place in 1999. Just two years ago, it came in ninth place overall and won a bronze medal.

For Waterloo to not be in the ICPC world finals is an upset akin to Spain being knocked out of the World Cup before the round of 16.

“What can you do?” says Ondřej Lhoták, the coach of the University of Waterloo team. “We just weren’t quite strong enough to make it.”

The University of Lethbridge team, from left to right: Darcy Best, Farshad Barahimi, Chris Martin with coach Howard Cheng.
The University of Lethbridge team, from left to right: Darcy Best, Farshad Barahimi, Chris Martin with coach Howard Cheng. The team is one of two Canadian universities taking part in this year’s “Battle of the Brains.”

To advance to the world finals, teams must first rise to the top of their own school’s internal process to decide the top competitors. From there, they take part in regional competitions to advance to the main event. At stake is prestige in the form of gold, silver, or bronze medals, cash prizes for the top finishers, and the prospect of good job offers from companies looking to recruit top talent.

This year, Waterloo narrowly lost its regional final to the University of Toronto, the University of Michigan, and Carnegie Mellon University.

“Those are the only three teams that have ever beaten us, but they’ve never always beaten us at all the same time,” Lhoták explains. If there were a fourth team picked from the region to attend the finals, it would be Waterloo.

Waterloo isn’t the only Canadian school to miss out. The ICPC world finals will only see 21 teams from North America overall this year, as opposed to 23 last year and only two of those teams will be Canadian. The University of Toronto and the University of Lethbridge are making the long trek east to face a growing number of teams from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America as the ICPC gives more spots to schools from those regions to recognize the growing interest in the competition seen there.

Canadians head to Eastern Russia for global contest

“I guess we can’t do worse than second in Canada,” says Howard Cheng, coach of the University of Lethbridge team. “The small schools can do well sometimes if you have the right group of students.”

Lethbridge claimed the only spot available in its region by narrowly beating out the University of Calgary. His team has been spending their weekends practicing for the finals by solving problems in simulated contest, and have spent 10 hours per week for the last three months in training, Cheng says. But his hopes for this week don’t include a world championship. He will measure their results against the other North American teams – last year it was in the middle of the pack in North America, placing 12 out of 23 teams. But when you consider all the teams in the finals, it placed 80 out of 120.

The Russian and Asian teams are just in a class of their own, Cheng says.

“If you think 10-15 hours a week is a lot for us, they do even more and they start earlier, when they are just 10 or 12 years old,” he says. “It’s like training to be an Olympic athlete for them.”

Looking back at the gold medal winners (teams finishing in the top four at the finals) for ICPC since 2009, the trend is unmistakable. Teams from Russia have won a gold eight times, and teams from China have won a gold six times. There’s just one gold medal winner in North America during that time.

The World Finals is being hosted in Russia for the second time in a row, having been in St. Petersburg last year. This year the contest moved east to Ekaterinburg which is Russia’s fourth-most populous city and marks the continental divide between Europe and Asia.

“The first thing we look for is the right place” to host a world finals, says Jeff Donahoo, deputy executive director of ICPC. “This is definitely the right place.”

JeffDonahoo-ICPC
Jeff Donahoo is the deputy executive director of the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest.

The host school, the Ural Federal University organizes its own regional competition for the ICPC and last year organized a special competition for winners of previous years to take part in a “Battle of the Champions.”

Russians train like Olympians for ‘mind sport’

Donahoo acknowledges the Olympic-level training and investment many Russian schools put into their teams, noting some students will solve between 2,000 and 3,000 problems a year. The ICPC competition has such a high profile in Russia that President Vlladimir Putin met with the 2012 winning team from a St. Petersburg-based university, publicly congratulating their achievement in a speech.

But he points out North American schools still consistently make the top 10 or 12, and says the world-wide stage for the contest has raised the bar for computer science skills.

“It’s a mind sport,” Donahoo says. “If you look at the World Cup, different regions have dominated at different times. That’s a healthy thing because it tells all the other regions that finding great coaches, support from universities, industry, and the community is going to make them more competitive.”

Waterloo is an excellent University, he says, and he expects to see them return to the world finals in the future.

Participation is the ICPC has grown rapidly since IBM began sponsoring it in 1997.
Participation is the ICPC has grown rapidly since IBM began sponsoring it in 1997.

If Waterloo is to make the world finals next year, they will have to do it without the help of Lhoták. The coach is a new parent and plans to take some parental leave time this year to attend to his new responsibilities at home. He’ll return as coach in September 2015.

Waterloo is proud of its track record of success at the ICPC, he says, and it uses the success in advertising to attract talented students. It also hold an annual reception for the teams that perform well at the world finals, attended by the dean. Interest in participating on the team is high, with 50-60 students coming to try outs.

“I wouldn’t write off North America completely,” he says about the world finals. “We’ve taken it as motivation and we’re trying to get better for next year.”

The ICPC competitions this year attracted participation from 32,043 students at 2,286 universities from 94 different countries. You can watch the live broadcast of the competition from the ICPC News website starting at midnight ET on Wednesday.

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