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.
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!’”