National Geographic World Championship 1999

Team Canada wins silver

Date: August 1999
Location: Toronto, ON, Canada
Team Canada: Alexander Schull, Mark Laurie, Bryan Jansens, and Alexander Subtelny

Students face stiff competition at International Geography Olympiad

Few Canadians had heard the word "Papiamento" before 16-year-old Torontonian Mark Laurie offered it as the correct answer to the following question at the International Geography Olympiad, held in August in Toronto: "Name the Spanish-based creole language of Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire that contains Dutch and Portuguese influences."

Papiamento has since been cited in many news reports about the competition and become oddly familiar. This is partly because Laurie's answer ended an agonizing 12-question tiebreaker round with Costa Rica, propelling Canada's team to the medal round. There, Laurie, Alexander Schull, 16, of Pembroke, Ont., Bryan Jansens, 13, of Calgary and Alexander Subtelny, 14, of Toronto — winners at the Canadian Geographic Challenge over the past two years — won silver. The U.S.A. won gold and Russia took bronze. Canada's medal follows our 1995 Olympiad bronze and 1997 gold. "We now have a complete set," says Dick Mansfield, chair of the Canadian Council for Geographic Education and coordinator of the team. "We're the only country to consistently be in the medal round."

There is no denying this is impressive. But the real reason Laurie, the team's captain, has received so much attention is the obscurity of the fact he so effortlessly plucked from his memory. Even his teammates thought it eerie. "Mark Laurie must have some psychic ability," says Schull. It was one thing that Laurie had heard of Papiamento, quite another that he had mentioned it to teammates the night before.

Laurie insists there is nothing remarkable about this; it is simply a matter of having a broad knowledge and reviewing it, topic by topic — in this case, languages. "It's not in the least ESP. I was not saying ‘This is going to be a question.' It's more, refresh your memory, this is worthy of note."

The biannual Olympiad, founded by the National Geographic Society in 1993, attracted 11 countries this year. It included an orienteering challenge at the Metro Toronto Zoo, a 45-minute written test with 60 questions, and a series of oral questions.

When Laurie was a young boy poring over maps and atlases and devouring information about places he hoped to visit — initially the Caribbean, hence the Papiamento nugget — he had no motive beyond curiosity. Canadian Geographic Challenge and the Olympiad have changed that. "It allows you to appreciate your knowledge. That's really a gift. Now I can see what more I could possibly do with geography." For now, he says, that simply means to be a good traveller.

But that, says Mansfield, is enough. "Geography is a fundamental discipline that regardless of career path is an important form of literacy. You'll find lots of competitions for kids who play the violin or basketball. We think it's important that students who have an affinity for geography have the opportunity to shine."

— Anita Lahey, Canadian Geographic Nov/Dec 1999

Photo: Canada's silver medallists (from left): Alexander Schull, Mark Laurie, Bryan Jansens and Alexander Subtelny. (Jeff Speed/National Geographic Society)