Business World, 28 August 2017


Roger Federer’s career boggles the mind.

His stay at the top of the tennis universe is unparalleled and his 19 Grand Slam titles will in all likelihood defy the test of time. And he did this against a strong field led by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray whose bold challenges were great entertainment but provide but a fitting front act to Roger’s laurels. Observers decided at the end of 2016 that 17 Grand Slams was probably the standard in the next quarter century but then he won two others in quick succession. He defines staying the moniker of legend.

When in 2016, our boys succeeded in snagging two golds and two silvers in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in Hong Kong, we gushed at the novelty and the audacity of this achievement. The nation tasted the rarified air of being ranked 17 in this pinnacle of cerebral contests. We stepped into the world of the elite; not the elite of physical prowess where the Usain Bolts and the King James of this world rule the roost but the elite of cerebral Olympians where the Einsteins and the Newtons are the icons.

For what sets us apart in the world of the sentient is rationality; “rational animal” Descartes called us continuing in the long Aristotelian tradition. This tradition gave us: “All men are rational; Donald is a man; Therefore, Donald is rational.” Which is why some will never cease hoping for the method in Donald’s madness. The same tradition gave us: x2 + y2 = z2, which in turn suggested Fermat’s Last Theorem, xn + yn ≠ zn, for any positive integers x, y, z and any integer n > 2? All the world paused in wonder when Andrew Wiles finally cracked Fermat’s code.

That is because rationality finds its sublime expression in the grammar of Logic and Mathematics. The IMOs cultivate prowess in this most forward-looking of human grammars; forward-looking because it undergirds the scientific and technological advances that extends our humanity.

By contrast, physical contests among humans reset no goalposts for the biota. You can run like Usain Bolt but beside a cheetah, you are just a fast disappearing point in the horizon. You can bench press like Arnold Schwarzenegger but beside an adult rhino, you are but a throwback juvenile.

The use of the mind allowed man to leave behind his biotic fellows: fly higher and faster with an airplane, transport farther and heavier with a freight train, live longer and more productively with antibiotics.

Of course, like any instrument, the mind has also been servant to mass mayhem and destruction — to Auschwitz and to Hiroshima. It is a bargain we are condemned to take as humans. So for better or for worse, if we are to earn a modicum of respect as members of the human community, that is, respect borne of a mixture of admiration and envy rather than of political correctness, we have to deliver harvests of the mind.

Making good in the IMOs may not be sufficient for building a future of global respectability.

But making consistently bad in the IMOs, our long-term heritage before 2016, was clearly an albatross to our national resolve to emerge out of the dumps. Which is why making the elite in 2016 was such a pleasure. If we did not “let ourselves go in divine rage” (apologies to Kepler), it was due to the cautionary rider: Was this a one-off? Did we just get lucky?

This is the very same question economists ask of episodes of rapid economic growth: is it sustainable? And it is valid before a history of non-achievement.

Can, for example, President Duterte and Dutertenomics sustain the growth performance of its maligned predecessor? Even more apropos, can Duterte match the quality of growth of that recent past, that is, with Manufacturing besting the Service sector in growth over six years leading to considerable poverty reduction? In 2016 during Duterte’s predecessor’s tenure, poverty incidence fell from 26.2% to 21.6%. Sans rival that!

Replicating two golds in the IMO in one year is very rare indeed even for thoroughbred countries in the IMO. That is not, fortunately, how thoroughbreds are reckoned in the IMOs; thoroughbreds establish their credentials by staying at or close to the top, year-in and year-out. And this staying power reflects a consciously constructed edifice of excellence.

This is the signal achievement of our IMO 2017 team in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — they maintained the ranking of 17 (among the 111 participating countries) established for the first time in 2016! Not by getting two golds and two silvers but by securing a medal each for the 6 team members (three golds and three bronze)! Two gold haul does look more impressive from the outside but, from the metric of staying the course, they are equivalent. And deserving of similar applause and support.

While we bask as a nation in the achievement of our IMO teams, we cannot stay on the sidelines; we as a nation must weigh in.

Our success as a nation is ultimately the harvest of our collective exertion as a nation. Other nations accord their teams with greater institutional nurture and support; and far grander pedestals in success. The future beckons to us to provide a better pedestal for our IMO heroes, one the equal — or preferably the superior — of the pedestals we accord medalists in lesser pursuits. Our IMO teams have shown us a tunnel out of the dark. Pity it would be if we are found wanting in our collective endeavor to stay in the light