Olympic Movement


The History And Value Of Olympic Gold Medals

Are Olympic Gold Medals Actually Gold?

The History And Value Of Olympic Gold Medals
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Are Olympic gold medals actually gold? Throughout both ancient and modern-Olympic history, the answer to this question has varied.

In ancient Greece, no medals were given to competitors at the Olympic Games. Instead, winning athletes at each Games were given olive branch wreaths, made from the branches of an olive tree in Olympia.

The tradition of giving victors an olive branch continued to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. This was also the first edition of the Games to ever award medals to the competitors. However, no gold medals were awarded as the winner of each event received a silver medal, while the runner-up received a bronze medal. A similar tradition continued at the 1900 Olympic Games, which saw gold plated silver medals awarded to the first place finisher in only specific events, with a majority of the events being contested for cups or other trophies. This was the first Olympics where silver and bronze medals were awarded for 2nd and 3rd place finishers, in those particular events. Notably, all of the medals were also square.

The first use of the modern-day medal system did not occur until the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri. These Games were the first to award the traditional gold, silver, and bronze medals to the top three finishers in each event. The gold medals presented at these Games consisted of solid gold, as the metal was cheaper to obtain prior to World War I. The 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games also utilized solid gold medals, however, these were the last ones to do so.

After 1912, the 1916 Olympic Games were canceled due to World War I and the price of gold skyrocketed due to demand from the war. Thus, host countries once-again began to utilize gold plated silver within the medals. In these “gold” medals, the core of the medal is made of silver, with a thin layer of gold covering the outside to give the appearance of a gold medal.

This trend has continued into the present-day. Currently, the International Olympic Committee states that an official Olympic gold medal must consist of at least 92.5% silver, and must contain a minimum of 6 grams of gold. In order to make any alterations to the design of the medals, a host country must obtain explicit permission from the International Olympic Committee. This occurred most notably in 2008, when Olympic organizers incorporated jade into the design of each of the three Olympic medals.

The logic behind this decision makes sense, in addition to the cost factor, gold, compared to silver, is an extremely “soft” metal. An Olympic medal made completely of gold would be much easier to bend or damage as compared to the silver-plated medals often used.

For the Summer Olympic Games in 2021, organizers from the Tokyo Olympic Committee decided to use recycled materials to make the medals, collecting old cell phones from the citizens of Tokyo to do so. This followed the same idea that the 2016 Rio Olympic organizers had, as they also used recycled materials in their medals.

Photo: Tokyo 2020
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