Sports International Magazine

The history of the Olympic Medals

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

There may only be a few days left of the 2016 Rio Olympics, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still plenty of opportunities for medals to be won and we still have the extravagance of the closing ceremony to enjoy.

We know – the Olympics aren’t just about winning medals and showing off (although both of those are very fun) – but you have to admit that everyone taking part in the competition will be dreaming about taking home gold.

There’s a lot more to the medals than many people think, mind. The modern medals that are given out today first originated about 110 years ago, but Olympic awards were still interesting even before then...

We’d prefer a medal, thanks...

The earliest known evidence of the Ancient Olympic Games dates as far back as the sixth century BC – although we imagine that it must have been very different to the games we know today. A more evolved version of the Olympics slowly developed, leading to the formation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894.

Whilst the games were still in their Ancient form, winners would receive an olive branch, twisted to form a circle or a horse-shoe. When the modern Olympics began in 1896, we saw the emergence of the medals that we still give out and receive today. Winners were given a silver medal as opposed to gold, and – sticking to tradition – an olive branch. Runners-up received a copper or bronze medal and...a laurel branch.

In the 1900 games, most of the winners received cups or trophies instead of medals. It wasn’t until the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri in the USA that the IOC introduced the gold, silver, and bronze medal awards – and they’ve stuck to pretty much the same method since!

What’s in a medal?

The physical appearance and properties of the medals all comes down to the IOC. The set rules (for now) are as follows:

  • Recipients: The top three competitors receive medals.
  • Shape: Usually circular, featuring an attachment for a chain or ribbon.
  • Diameter: A minimum of 60 mm.
  • Thickness: A minimum of 3 mm.
  • Material: -First place (the "Gold" medal)... isn’t actually gold. It is composed of silver of at least .925 grade, plated with 6 grams of gold.
    -Second place (the "Silver" medal): .925 silver.
    -Third place (the "Bronze" medal): It is mostly copper with some tin and zinc.
  • Event details: The sport for which the medal has been awarded should be written on the medal

The first modern medals in 1896 were designed by French sculptor Jules-Clement Chaplain, and showed Zeus holding Nike (the Greek goddess of victory, not a pair of trainers) on one side, and then the Acropolis on the other.

In 1923, the IOC launched a competition for sculptors to create a new medal design for the Olympics. The winner came in the form of Giuseppe Cassioli’s ‘Trionfo’ design, which depicted Nike holding a crown and palm with a depiction of the Roman Colosseum in the background, with a space for the name of the Olympic host and the number of the Game’s year. The reverse showed a crowd of people carrying a triumphant athlete. This design was used from 1928 til 1972.

This design was recreated yearly until 2004, in which the designer of the current medal received backlash from the Greek press for using the Roman Colosseum rather than the Greek Parthenon – a mistake which had remained for 76 years. A change was made at the next games, and the same design is still used today.

Medals, medals everywhere

The medals used in the Winter Olympics vary much more than their Summer equivalent, having been made out of everything from jade, to glass, to sparagmite (we’re not sure, either). The designs have always varied, but always seem to feature recurrent motifs such as snowflakes, laurel leaves, and crowns.

Since the start of the modern Olympics, everyone from the athletes and their support staff, to event officials, to volunteers have received medals, diplomas, and other awards to commemorate their hard work. In a similar vein to the medals, these are changed for each Olympiad, with different ones being offered for the summer and winter games.

So – regardless of if your favourite has taken home the gold (or silver, or bronze) this year, there’s no denying that the history surrounding the Olympic medals is a rich and interesting one.

Aford Awards trophy specialists enjoyed looking back at the history of such a prestigious event and the medals that athletes across the globe hope to win.