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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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Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
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CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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