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Go for the Gold: The Strange History of Olympic Medals

Gold medal

At the first Olympic Games back in 776 BCE, competitors did not receive medals. Instead the top athletes were crowned with wreaths made of olive leaves. This tradition continued until Roman emperor Theodosius I (or perhaps his son) abolished the Olympics around the year 400 CE. The revival of the Olympics dates from the late 19th century, with the first modern Games taking place in 1896. The awarding of medals arose around this time as well, though its roots lie in ancient Greek mythology.

The materials gold, silver, and bronze play a major role in the Ages of Man, which form the basic timeline of Greek mythology. The Golden Age refers to a time when men lived among the gods in peace and harmony. The Silver Age is characterized by impiety and human weakness, and in this time, youth lasted 100 years. The Bronze Age marks a period of war and violence. Following these ages are the Heroic Age (the time when the heros of the Trojan War lived) and the Iron Age (modern times). The Greek poet Hesiod includes all five ages in his famous didactic poem Works and Days, written around 700 BCE. However Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written around 8 CE, omits the Heroic Age.

Gold has long been thought to be a precious metal thanks to its scarcity and its luminous color. In his play Plutus, first produced in 408 BCE, comic playwright Aristophanes jokingly suggests that the winners of the Olympics would receive gold as their prize, if only Zeus weren’t so poor:

Why, Zeus is poor, and I will clearly prove it to you. In the Olympic games, which he founded, and to which he convokes the whole of Greece every four years, why does he only crown the victorious athletes with wild olive? If he were rich he would give them gold.

Perhaps this humorous passage, or others like it, inspired the fathers of the modern Olympic Games to present gold to the top athletes, though the implementation of this coveted prize didn’t happen right away. At the first modern Olympic Games, which took place in Athens in 1896, winners received silver medals and olive branches (there wasn’t enough money to mint gold ones), and the runners-up received bronze medals. The second modern Games took place in Paris in 1900, and winners actually received valuable paintings and works of art rather than gold medals. Four years later in St. Louis, the first-, second-, and third-place athletes were awarded the gold, silver, and bronze medals. The tradition of awarding solid-gold medals to champions was short lived, ending after the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. The gold medals of today are mostly silver and are gilt with six grams of gold.

In the 18th century, the term medal was widely used to refer to an award of recognition, though back then medals were not strictly associated with athletic pursuits. While the Olympics were not the first event to feature gold, silver, and bronze medals, this worldwide sports competition is certainly the most famous event that awards these prizes to date.

18 Comments

  1. wolf tamer and iron miner -  March 11, 2014 - 7:52 am

    @Anthony A:
    CE stands for Common Era (or sometimes Christian Era), and BCE stands for Before the Common (or Christian) Era. As Jim said, it’s “politically correct garbage…thought up so one or two out there won’t get their noses bent out of joint;” no matter what your religion or lack thereof, Jesus Christ was – and still is – real.

    Reply
  2. Anthony A -  March 9, 2014 - 6:43 am

    What does BCE & CE mean ?

    Reply
  3. wolf tamer and iron miner -  March 5, 2014 - 5:05 am

    I completely agree with Jim. It is The Year of Our Lord – Anno Domini/A.D., with BC (Before Christ) not this ridiculous CE (and the corresponding BCE) garbage.

    Reply
  4. Espen -  February 24, 2014 - 6:04 pm

    Jim well said. I completely agree with you. I also support the riddance of CE, for AD. AD means Anno Domini, The year of our Lord.

    Reply
  5. wolf tamer and iron miner -  February 22, 2014 - 2:51 am

    @anonymous:
    Yep, I’m at iron ore now! Gotta love those cave systems… ;)

    Reply
  6. @nonym0u$ -  February 21, 2014 - 5:14 pm

    To H112233

    Silver will not be entirely out because it is still an object in the cycle of exchange, meaning people will eventually melt down some silver, such as in silverware or broken machines, to be reused for other creations.

    1) Silver won’t be gone because it is still being made in nucleosynthesis

    2) IF and I say somehow IF the silver was suddenly gone, humans will just go to the next big thing, such as platinum, and if that’s all gone, the next thing, et cetera. Human, me included, go for the shiny and/or rare items that are known to man. Silver has not as much use (no offense ladies) as something such as oil or something. Trust me, if silver was gone, the world won’t end.

    Reply
  7. Tony -  February 21, 2014 - 12:17 pm

    What is with the PC thing of “BCE”? The article was interesting, but it was like you were trying hard to say “BCE” and “CE” to where you were overcompensating. Let B.C. be B.C. and A.D. be A.D. America tried to change it, it didn’t stick. Reminds me of trying to change standard/english to metric. Sure, it makes sense, but we will keep doing what we do and no harm/no foul.

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  8. Jim -  February 20, 2014 - 12:44 pm

    Great info, as always. But let’s get rid of that idiotic BCE garbage. It’s BC. No, I’m not a very religious person, but for centuries we’ve used Before Christ as a kind of marker for historical times. There’s no good reason at all to change this. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist, a Muslim, Catholic, whatever, this BCE is politically correct garbage. Jesus was a real and very important historical person, no matter what your religion or lack of. “BCE”…sounds like some childish fool thought that up just so one or two out there won’t get their nose bent out of joint.

    Reply
  9. anonymous -  February 19, 2014 - 2:28 pm

    @wolf tamer and coal miner
    The games are in Sochi, and as for you bob, it’s with a ch.

    @H112233
    I agree. This year, they are also making the largest and thickest medals ever (10 cm wide and 1 cm thick). The gold medals weigh slightly more than the silver and bronze, mainly because of the gold plating.

    Also, wolf tamer and coal miner, are you at iron ore yet?

    Reply
  10. 777forgold -  February 18, 2014 - 10:01 pm

    GOLD is for: goldfish on long doors
    SILVER is for: soup in long vases every round
    BRONZE is for: big red oval neon zebra elephants
    GSB is for: gold sucks badly
    SBG is for:silver beats gold
    BGS is for: bronze gives shivers
    So out of these 3,I would say the best prize but most scary is bronze.
    SOCHI:See ozone clearly here, indoors?
    OLYMPICS:Oh…loopy,yucky,milky poison is carried somewhere
    SEEYA:submitting everyone’s every yellow award
    777:a young virus.

    Reply
  11. Big Bucks Back Then -  February 17, 2014 - 5:49 pm

    While ancient Olympic winners were only given laurel wreaths at the ceremonies, wealthy merchants often presented them with massive amphoras (ceramic containers) of olive oil. The capacity of a single terra cotta amphora held approximately US1,000 worth of oil. Some individual Olympic champions received as many as one hundred amphoras (or “amphorae”), which they then sold. Aristophanes probably was well aware of all this commercialism, but it didn’t fit into his play.

    Reply
  12. bob -  February 17, 2014 - 5:06 pm

    olymics- soji

    Reply
  13. bob -  February 17, 2014 - 5:06 pm

    the winter Olympic games are being held in Soji Russia

    Reply
  14. mr magoo -  February 16, 2014 - 4:07 pm

    they could start giving them something else

    bronze > a lot of candy
    silver > yeartime supply of klondike bars
    gold> lifetime supply of sausage gravy

    Reply
  15. H112233 -  February 6, 2014 - 7:36 pm

    If you guys make a big deal that the “gold medals” have more silver than gold, think of it this way:
    We can’t keep our natural resources forever. Soon, silver will be gone, then what? If gold medals were completely gold, boy would they be expensive. If the the medals have silver in them, what’s wrong with silver? It’s pretty.

    Reply
  16. Much Wenlock -  February 4, 2014 - 12:59 pm

    What about The Wenlock Olympian Games? Widely regarded as the forerunner to the modern olympic movement, even serving as the inspiration for it.

    “Baron Pierre de Coubertin visited the Olympian Society in 1890, which held a special festival in his honour. He was inspired by Dr Brookes and went on to establish the International Olympic Committee.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wenlock_Olympian_Games

    “On his return to France, Coubertin gave a glowing account of his stay in an article, “Les Jeux Olympiques à Much Wenlock”, and referred to his host’s efforts to revive the Olympics. He wrote : “If the Olympic Games that Modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives there today, it is due, not to a Greek, but to Dr W P Brookes”. Although Coubertin later sought to downplay Brookes’s influence, he corresponded with him for several years and sent him a golden medal (made of silver) in 1891 to be presented to the winner of the Tilting Competition.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penny_Brookes

    Reply
  17. wolf tamer and coal miner -  February 4, 2014 - 12:47 am

    1st comment! :)

    The Winter Games are this year, right? Can anyone tell me where they’re being held?

    Hmmm…less gold in a gold medal than I thought. I wonder what Aristophanes would say if he knew Olympic winners won gold medals today? ;)

    Ms. Solomon, I believe you meant “a precious _metal_,” not “a precious _medal_.” Not to be a Grammar Nazi, but this is a dictionary, after all! ;)

    Reply

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