The International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) is a competition for students at secondary school level with the aim of promoting international contacts in chemistry. It is intended to stimulate the activities of students interested in chemistry by way of independent and creative solving of chemical problems. The IChO competitions help to enhance friendly relations among young people from different countries and they encourage co-operation and international understanding.
The IChO is organized every year at the beginning of July in one of the participating countries. Each participating country's delegation consists of four competitors and two accompanying persons (also known as mentors). The maximum age of the competitors is 20-years-old (on the 1 July that year).
The Olympic slogan is at the core of the Olympiad: to participate is everything!
The idea of the chemistry Olympiad was developed in the former Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was designed with the aim to increase the number of international contacts and the exchange of information between nations. Invitations were sent by the Czech national committee to all socialist countries, except Romania. However, in May 1968, relations between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union became so delicate that only Poland and Hungary participated in the first international competition.
The first international chemistry Olympiad took place in Prague between 18 and 21 June, 1968. Each of the three participating countries sent a team of six pupils, and four theoretical tasks were to be solved. Guidelines for the next competitions were already suggested. The second chemistry Olympiad took place in 1969 in Poland, and Bulgaria also participated. Each team consisted of five pupils, and an experimental competition was added. The decision was made to invite more socialist countries to future competitions and to limit the number of pupils to four. The third Olympiad in 1970 was organised in Hungary with the GDR, Romania and the Soviet Union as new countries. In this competition, more than three prizes were distributed to the pupils.
There was no Olympiad held in 1971, as at the end of the previous year's competition, they couldn't agree on a place to organise and host the event. This was solved for the next three years by diplomatically agreeing on the Soviet Union to host 1972, Bulgaria in 1973 and Romania in 1974. 1972 was the first time where preparation tasks for the chemistry Olympiad were created. Also, at a jury session, someone suggested inviting Vietnam, Mongolia and Cuba. However, this increase did not occur, leaving seven to compete in 1973.
In 1974, Romania invited Sweden and Yugoslavia to the Olympiad in Bucharest, and Germany and Austria sent observers. The Federal Republic of Germany was the first NATO-country with an observer present, and was only able to occur because of the Brandt government having contracts in the East. Thus, in 1975 West Germany, Austria, and Belgium also participated in the Olympiad.
Since 1977, the Olympiad has been promoted and funded by UNESCO. The first Olympiad in a non-socialist country took place 1980 in Linz in Austria, although the Soviet Union did not participate. Since then the number of the participating countries has increased continuously. In 1980 only 13 nations took part, and this increased to 21 in the 1984 Olympiad in Frankfurt/Main.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the break-up of the Soviet Union into independent states at the beginning of the 1990s, the number of participants increased again. In addition, the increasing interest of the Latin American countries became apparent with the numbers of participants. Only a country from Africa is missing, so that pupils from all five continents participate. Altogether 47 delegations participated in 1998. Though this strong increase of the numbers of participants is very satisfactory, it involves some substantial problems for the host country. Nevertheless, this problem should be solvable with the introduction of moderate start fees for the teams.
The actual competition is divided into two parts: a theoretical and an experimental examination. Each part lasts five hours. Altogether 100 points are assigned; 60 points can be attained in the theoretical section and 40 points in the experimental section. A scientific jury, which is installed from the host country, suggests the tasks. The international jury, which consists of 2 mentors from each of the participating countries, discusses and approves the competition tasks and translates it into the respective language of their country.
The style and quantity of the problems have changed over time because the curricula at the secondary schools have altered and many modern developments in chemistry have flowed into the tasks. If you compare the problems of the first Olympiad with tasks of current Olympiads, then immediately you can see that both the degree of difficulty and the range of the problems have increased. The tasks of the first chemistry Olympiad fitted on two pages, whereas the range of the theoretical examination in Melbourne needed 18 pages.
However, apart from the increase in the scope of the problems, the didactical quality of the problems has also increased. No pure fact knowledge is to be queried, but much importance is attached to creativity and chemical understanding. Many host countries also try to let specific features of the chemistry research in the country flow into the problems.
A topic catalogue exists, which arranges the tasks into different degrees of difficulty from one to three. All tasks within difficulty area three must have been treated in the preparation problems, which are sent by the supervisor before the meeting to the mentors.
The practical examination reflects the great importance of experiments for chemical science. The experimental examination is firmly integrated in the program of the chemistry Olympiad. Often their result decides on the distribution of the medals.
The last few years have seen China dominating, which, considering the large total population and the intensity of their competition preparation, is not really that amazing. However, smaller countries have shown that it is possible to do well with good preparation, as was shown by Singapore taking first place in Melbourne.
It only remains to hope that the next 30 years of the chemistry Olympiad will pass just as successfully as the last, and that as many pupils as possible can profit from this excellent competition.