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Adapted from Gorzkowski, W. International Physics Olympiad (IPhO): Their History, Structure and Future. Available from: (accessed June 2011).

The International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) is an international physics competition for secondary-school students. The first one was organised by Prof. Czesław Ścisłowski in Warsaw, Poland, in 1967. Before that, it was suggested that the IPhOs should be conceived and held annually like the International Mathematical Olympiads (IMOs). The success of the IMOs, and the positive experience gained from their organisers, greatly stimulated physicists involved in physics education.

The hard work and dedication of three professors deserves particular praise: Czesław Ścisłowski from Poland, Rostislav Kostial from Czechoslovakia and Rudolf Kunfalvi from Hungary. Each of them investigated various possibilities of organising the first IPhO in his country. It was concluded that Poland offered the best conditions and the most favourable atmosphere. This, together with a great personal contribution from Prof. Ścisłowski, resulted in the first international physics competition that took place in Warsaw in 1967.

One should underline here an essential difference between the IMOs and the IPhOs. At the IPhOs, participants solve not only theoretical problems, but also experimental problems. For this reason, organising an IPhO is more complicated and more expensive.

Several months before the first IPhO took place, invitations were sent to all Central European countries. The invitations were accepted by Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Each team consisted of three secondary-school students accompanied by one supervisor. The competition was arranged along the lines of the Polish Physics Olympiad: one day for theoretical problems, and another day for an experiment. One difference was that the participants had to wait for the scripts to be marked. During the waiting period, the organisers arranged two excursions by plane to Kraków and Gdańsk. The students had to solve four theoretical problems and one experimental problem.

The second IPhO was organised in Budapest, Hungary, in 1968. Some time before the second IPhO, preliminary versions of the Statutes and Syllabus were produced. Later, the International Board consisting of the supervisors of the teams that participated in the competition officially accepted these documents. This took place during a special meeting organised in Brno, Czechoslovakia, several months after the second IPhO. It is proper to underline that, in spite of various changes made later, all the basic features of the first Statutes remain valid to this day.

The third IPhO was arranged in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1969. It was organised according to the official Statutes accepted earlier. The next IPhO took place in Moscow, Soviet Union, in 1970. Each country was represented by six students and two supervisors. Several small changes were also introduced into the Statutes.

Since the fifth IPhO, held in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1971, each team has consisted of five students and two supervisors. The sixth IPhO was held in Bucharest, Romania, in 1972. The first non-European country, Cuba, and the first Western European country, France, participated. The International Board decided to introduce several changes into the Statutes; however, no written proposal of the changes was produced.

Unfortunately, in 1973, there was no IPhO as no country was willing to organise it, although the number of participating countries had been gradually increasing. When it seemed likely that the IPhOs would die, Poland took the initiative of reviving them and organised the seventh IPhO in Warsaw in 1974 (for the second time). On this occasion, West Germany was invited to attend the competition for the first time. This certainly had a symbolic significance.

Before the competition, the organising committee introduced into the Statutes the verbal changes discussed and accepted in Bucharest. The new version of the Statutes was sent to all the countries invited to the competition for acceptance and comments. The wording suggested by the organising committee was accepted. The most important changes were as follows.

  1. The number of theoretical problems was reduced from four to three.
  2. The number of working languages (previously Russian, English, German and French) was reduced to two, English and Russian.
  3. There should be one rest day between the two examination days.
  4. The criteria for prizes should be expressed in percentages with respect to the highest score received in a given competition (formerly range of mark for prizes had been determined with respect to the highest theoretically possible score).

In 1975, 1976 and 1977 the IPhOs took place in East Germany for the first time, Hungary, for the second time, and Czechoslovakia, for the second time, respectively. In the thirteenth IPhO in Malente, West Germany, for the first time, the participants solved, under agreement of the International Board, two experimental problems instead of one.

In 1983, the IPhO was organised in Bucharest, Romania, for the second time. The number of problems prepared by the organisers for the students much exceeded the number of problems mentioned in the Statutes. The International Board spent a lot of time discussing the Statutes and Syllabus, and the future of the Olympiads.

It was decided that the next competition would take place in Sigtuna, Sweden, in 1984. Unfortunately, there were no volunteers to organise the Olympiads in 1985, 1986 and 1987. In such a situation, upon the suggestion of Dr. Gunter Lind (West Germany), the International Board decided to appoint Dr. Waldemar Gorzkowski as a permanent Secretariat for coordinating the long-term work of the IPhOs and popularising them. It was also decided that the Secretariat together with Prof. Lars Silverberg (Sweden), the organiser of the next competition in Sweden, should prepare a new version of the Statutes.

The revision of the Statutes was accepted at the next IPhO. There are, in fact, only minor differences between the old and new versions. The most essential difference is that the new version legalised the existence of the Secretariat of the International Physics Olympiad, consisting of two persons (president and secretary). Another change instituted was that in the experimental part of the competition the participants could be set one or two experimental tasks; earlier only one was allowed. One can say that the new version differed from the old one primarily in wording. The new version was much more precise.

The delegation heads, consisting of two persons from each participating country, form the so-called International Board, which is the highest authority of the IPhOs. The International Board does not change significantly from year to year. The majority of members know each other very well. Within the International Board, there is a very pleasant and friendly atmosphere. Thanks to this attitude and good will, many difficult problems can be solved comfortably. This is why the Secretariat was able, for instance, to solve the problem of organisation of the International Physics Olympiads in 1985, 1986 and 1987. In 1986, the United Kingdom organised the XVII IPhO in Harrow, London, within only two years since its entry into the competition.

Due to joint efforts of the Secretariat and the organisers of the competitions in 1985 (Prof. Anton Moljk and Dr. Bojan Golli) and in 1986 (Dr. Guy Bagnall and Dr. Cyril Isenberg), a new version of the Syllabus was produced. Its theoretical part was accepted in Portoroż in 1985 and first applied in Harrow, London, in 1986. Later, following a suggestion of the International Board, the Secretariat prepared a new so-called column version of the Syllabus. This version shows not only the breadth of the physics contents, but also the depth of approach required. The Syllabus is indeed very modern. Nevertheless, the International Board is always ready to introduce improvements in the Statutes and Syllabus when necessary. Subsequently, an IPhO is run every year.

Following the suggestion of Dr. Rodney Jory (Australia) in 1996, the International Board has decided to create the Advisory Committee reporting to the president. At present the Advisory Committee consists of 14 persons with great experience in the Olympiad work. Every year, some changes in the Statutes are made. Usually they are minor changes. Nevertheless, sometimes the changes are major. The last such change was made in 1999. The Statutes was split into two parts: proper Statutes, and Regulations. Changes in the part called Statutes require qualified majority when voting, while changes in Regulations require simple majority only. In this way, the most important points of the Olympiad law have been separated from those that are of less importance.

The latest versions of the Statutes, Regulations, Syllabus and other documents are available at the official IPhO website, hosted in Chinese Taipei. The current secretary of the International Board is Prof. Ming-Juey Lin (National Taiwan Normal University, Chinese Taipei), and the current president is Dr. Hans Jordens (University of Groningen, the Netherlands).

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