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How Much Gold is in a Gold Medal?

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On our last semi-regular "Ask Matt" day, reader Mel asked, “Are there standards for just how much gold is in those gold medals these Olympic athletes are getting?”

The amount of gold in medals is indeed regulated, and there’s a lot less than there used to be.

The prizes awarded at the Olympics have varied over their long history. Ancient Greek competitors were given an olive branch from a wild olive tree that grew at Olympia (and some drachma upon returning home a champion, too). When the first modern Olympic games organized by the International Olympic Committee were held in 1896 in Athens, winners got a silver medal and an olive branch, and runners-up received a bronze medal and a laurel branch.

At the 1900 Paris Games, some athletes got silver or bronze medals, but the majority received cups or other trophies. Gold medals made from solid gold were introduced at the 1904 St. Louis Games, and four years later in London, the medals began to be awarded to the top three placing athletes in the gold-silver-bronze order we’re familiar with today.

The 1912 Stockholm Games were the last time solid gold medals were awarded. These days, the IOC charter only requires that the first place medals be silver gilt, containing “silver of at least 925-1000 grade and gilded with at least 6g of pure gold.” The second place silver medals must contain silver of a similar grade. Beyond that, the specific composition of the medals, and their design, is largely left to the host city’s organizing committee.

Going for (1%) Gold

For this year’s London Games, the gold medals are roughly 93% silver, 6% copper and 1% gold (as of this writing, that’s about $300 worth of gold). The silver medals are 92% silver and 8% copper. The bronze medals are 97% copper, 2.5% zinc and 0.5% tin.

The medals have a value beyond the worth of their precious metal content, though. They’re pieces of history, and can command high asking prices on the market. A gold medal from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" American hockey team was auctioned off for over $300,000 a few years ago, and a bronze medal from the 1972 Munich Games recently sold for just shy of $3,000.

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A story from ancient Greece, back when athletes received only a humble olive branch, says a lot about what these prizes mean. In The Histories, Herodotus writes about a group of Arcadian deserters who went to the Persians looking for work. The Persians asked them what the Greeks were up to, and the Arcadians explained that their countrymen were “holding the Olympic festival and viewing sports and horse races.” The Persians asked what prizes were offered to the competitors and the Arcadians explained that the victors received a “crown of olive.”

“Then Tigranes son of Artabanus [a Persian regent] uttered a most noble saying,” writes Herodotus. “When he heard that the prize was not money but a crown, he could not hold his peace, but cried, ‘Good heavens, Mardonius [a Persian military commander], what kind of men are these that you have pitted us against? It is not for money they contend but for glory of achievement!’”

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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