Geeks Code for the Gold

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By Michelle Delio 02:00 AM Sep. 14, 2004 PT

If your idea of a good workout is a vigorous code-debugging session, you probably made plenty of snarky comments during the Summer Olympics last month.
Your commentary may have gone something like this: Yes, Olympic athletes have fabulously toned bodies, but at what cost? Dedicating most of your waking hours to flinging yourself around on a gymnastic apparatus, splashing in pools or scampering around racetracks leaves precious little time for important things like programming, perusing online porn and securing your network.
But you don't have to be a jock to experience the thrill of Olympics victory and the agony of defeat. At the annual International Olympiad in Informatics, or IOI, programming abilities and razor-sharp minds score the big points, not physical speed and agility.
This year, the 16th annual geek olympics is taking place in Athens, Greece, from Sept. 11 to Sept. 18. During the games, 304 young programmers from 80 countries will compete in seven marathon programming sessions to determine who is the world's fastest coder.
Overclocked athletes popping performance-enhancing drugs aren't a concern at this competition. Instead, officials appear to be concerned about hacking.
According to the rules, any contestant who attempts to "attack the Olympic system's security or the grader (the grader is a program that assigns scores to each contestant), execute other programs or access other networks during competition, change file system permissions, or read file system information" will be immediately disqualified.
Attempting to "fix, debug or check" the computer network will also result in disqualification.
Contestants will be ushered into the computer lab at 8 a.m. after being frisked "to verify that they are not bringing anything with them into the competition rooms other than clothing, reasonable jewelry and simple wristwatches." They'll then be given a new task -- a problem to solve by coding a program -- each morning.
During the first hour of competition, contestants may submit written questions concerning any ambiguities about the assigned task to the IOI committee. Contestants have been warned that the majority of these questions will be answered with a terse "yes," "no" or "no comment."
Competitors submit their solutions to the competition server and are scored on the elegance of their solution and the quality of their source code.
The contestants will be working on computers supplied by Greek PC vendor Altec and will have the choice of booting up into either Microsoft XP or Red Hat Linux 9.0.
High-school students Anders Kaseorg, Brian Jacokes, Alex Schwendner and Eric Price are representing the United States. Selected from 16 hopeful programmers, the USA Computing Olympiad, or USACO, team is in the best shape of its life, thanks to extensive pre-event training at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.
This year's team headed off to Athens proudly wearing "Trojan Cow" team T-shirts. All of the contestants will be living in the Summer Olympics Press Village, where media reps were housed during the summer games. The development has been renamed the IOI Village.
The IOI was initiated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, in 1989. The idea was and is to "create continuity between past and present, combining the tradition of the Olympic Games with current technologic and scientific developments," said George Pofantis, head of media relations for the IOI 2004 games.
"Also we want to help develop the education of talented persons who are willing to help and work together with persons from other countries, sharing their scientific and cultural experiences, as well as provide an answer to those who believe that modern technology is out of hand and give credit to those who use technology as a means to achieve for noble and peaceful goals."
The IOI is one of five brains-over-brawn Olympiads; other games test kids' skills in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology.
Sponsors of the 2004 USACO team include IBM, Usenix, the Sans Institute, the Association for Computing Machinery and Google.