Kids show the joy of an Odyssey of the Mind
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
While I usually write about weighty issues of international politics, I pause this week to look at world trends through a very different prism. I spent the last few days of May in Ames, Iowa for the Odyssey of the Mind World Championships. Odyssey of the Mind was started in the United States in the 1970s to bring together teams of kids who spent a year creating solutions to a set of problems through various combinations of engineering and dramatic performance. My own kids were at Worlds representing the state of Maryland and were joined by teams who had won local championships in most states of the Union and countries as far away as Poland and Korea.
This was the first in-person World Championship since Covid struck, and the Iowa State University arena was packed with thousands of screaming kids chanting their state or national mottos, wearing funny hats (flamingo hats for Florida, crab hats for Maryland, neon yellow jackets for Korea) and calling out to each other in good cheer (“great job Poland … way to go, Korea ... hooray Pennsylvania!). In between contests, hundreds of kids spread out towels on the floors to engage in intense bartering with their creatively designed team pins.
The event had all the hopeful joy of the Olympics but with a lighthearted lilt and not a whiff of the scandals or political controversies that often mar the Olympics. Yet somehow geopolitics did lurk somewhere just out of sight.
Several international teams were notably missing this year, like Russia. China and Hong Kong usually send large delegations not this year. Germany and Japan were also no-shows. How much of this was Covid and how much the result of an increasingly fractured international system? Though the organizers gave no hints beyond expressing a hope to see all the international teams back again next year, I suspect the Russian absence was primarily about geopolitics.
Having seen the Russian kids proudly march in the opening ceremony in past years and join with friends from around the world to compete and trade pins, I doubt this was an easy or happy decision for their teams. Were some of their parents among the tens of thousands of talented Western-oriented liberals who fled Russia after Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine? Did economic sanctions imposed on Russia because of the invasion make travel prohibitively costly this year? Or were the Russians too ashamed to travel to an international gathering at this moment? One can only hope that those Russian kids stay connected with their friends from America, Korea and especially Poland and Germany, with whom they will some day have to build a more peaceful Europe. To the extent the Russian kids were forced to miss the competition because of war in Ukraine, they too are victims of Vladmir Putin.
The Chinese kids likely stayed home because of Xi Jinping’s zero Covid policies and complete lockdown of major cities like Shanghai. It would have been impossible for the Chinese teams to practice, let alone travel internationally. This was a shame since the Chinese delegation was always loud and proud, performed well, and were particularly adept at pin trading. It has been shocking how easily the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could shut off its citizens from the world in the name of Covid prevention. Those policies coincided with the CCP’s social mobilization campaign decrying the United States and democracy and declaring that the “East is rising, and the West is declining.” CCP propagandists might have viewed the Odyssey of the Mind events as evidence of Western decadence, with all the silly hats and humorous combinations of song, skits, and mechanical inventions.
They might also notice that NASA usually sends officials to the World Finals to encourage the next generation of creative inventors and scientists. China’s middle class is the size of the U.S. population, and even though many of those parents are forced to use their “Xi Jinping Thought” Apps every week, they still want their children to be connected to the world. Perhaps next year the Chinese teams will make a reappearance. And maybe in thirty years a Chinese and American kid who traded pins will be reconnected as leaders of their respective countries in a more peaceful and productive era.
While hints of an international system fractured by geopolitics and Covid were evident, one could also see in the Odyssey of the Mind championships the human love of commerce. Tens of thousands of pins traded hands — all with colorful team mascots: Medusas from Virginia, hanbok and butterflies from Korea, Statues of Liberty from New York, mini-computers from California and arrowheads from Oklahoma. Kids who barely speak a word of one another’s languages all played by the same unspoken rules and made connections and friendships through barter trade. It was a giant experiment in liberal internationalism.
Soft power was on full display. especially Korean soft power. Korea fielded multiple teams. All were cheered on heartily and the “Seven Best Kids” team took back to Korea a major prize. More than once I heard American kids in the hallways and outdoor areas bragging to their friends, “I got one of the Korean pins!” The most popular of those pins came in sets of three that formed a Korean peninsula in the middle when joined together. (My own kids traded their Maryland and Virginia pins to make sure I got a set for my office!)
Will there be a day when kids from North of the DMZ get to enjoy the sheer pride and fun of making friends from around the world instead of spending their days memorizing Kim Il Sungism and marching to school in dreary military formations (something I witnessed and found incredibly sad on my own visit to Pyongyang)? I believe they will — and they will be surprised and enormously proud at how a free Korea is celebrated around the world.
Odyssey of the Mind is about creativity and not geopolitics. But one could not attend a celebration of thousands of children — and parents who secretly wished they could be children again — without feeling that this young new generation still has a chance to bend history back to a more congenial, prosperous, and interconnected world.