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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Gold Medal Personifies the Spirit of the Olympics

The two sides of the 2012 London Gold Medal. Photo credit: The official London 2012 website

As the London 2012 Summer Olympics officially begins, this may be the appropriate time to view the symbolic, historical and monetary value of the ultimate prize in the greatest sporting endeavor on the planet.

More than 10,000 athletes will spend nearly three weeks (some games already began) competing for the chance to receive at least one of 302 Olympic Gold Medals. But what are they actually receiving and how did the gold medal become the top prize in the Olympics?

The “podium value” of the London gold medal is worth approximately $708, according to the World Gold Council. It is the highest value of any gold medal in the history of modern games, primarily because of the record high prices of gold and silver.

Each gold medal is made up of 92.5 percent silver and 1.34 percent gold, with the remainder copper. The International Olympic Committee stipulates that each gold medal must have six grams of gold (as well as 92.5 percent silver).

The silver medal (which represents second place) is made up of 92.5 percent silver, with the remainder copper; and the bronze medal (for third place) is made up of 97 percent copper, 2.5 percent zinc and 0.5 percent tin.

If the London 2012 Games medals were made of solid gold, it would cost nearly $40 million to make. This is why the last time pure gold medals were presented was in 1912.

The custom of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals began in the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Mo. These metals represent the first three Ages of Man in Greek mythology: the Golden Age, when men lived among the gods, the Silver Age, where youth lasted a hundred years, and the Bronze Age, the era of heroes.

Each medal is 85mm in diameter and between 8-10 mm thick. The gold and silver medals weigh 412 grams (0.9 pounds) and the bronze medal weighs 357 grams (0.78 pounds). They are the biggest and heaviest summer Olympic medals ever made, according to the WGC.

Eight tons of precious ore for all the medals were supplied by mining giant Rio Tinto and was mined at the Kennecott Utah Copper mine near Salt Lake City, Utah, as well as from the Oyu Tolgoi project in Mongolia, according to the official London 2012 website. For the small amount of non-precious elements used in the bronze medals, the zinc was sourced from a mine in Australia as well as from recycled stock, while the tin originates from a mine in Cornwall, England.

The metal was sent to Spain where it was turned into discs and then were produced at the Royal Mint headquarters in Llantrisant, South Wales.

Each medal takes 10 hours to make, according to the WGC. A 35mm disc is placed in a furnace and heated to 750 degrees Celsius (1,382 degrees Fahrenheit) to soften the medal. The metal disc is then struck 15 times under 900 tons of pressure.

All of the medals were designed by British artist David Watkins.

The circular form of the Olympic medals is a metaphor for the world. The front of the medal always depicts the same imagery at the Summer Games—the Greek Goddess of Victory, Nike, stepping out of the depiction of the Parthenon to arrive in the host city.

The design for the reverse, according to the London 2012 website, features five symbolic elements:

* The curved background implies a bowl similar to the design of an amphitheatre.
* The core emblem is an architectural expression, a metaphor for the modern city.
* The grid suggests both a pulling together and a sense of outreach—an image of radiating energy that represents the athletes’ efforts. 
* The River Thames in the background is a symbol for London and also suggests a fluttering baroque ribbon, adding a sense of celebration. 
* The square is the final balancing motif of the design, opposing the overall circularity of the design, emphasizing its focus on the center and reinforcing the sense of “place” as in a map inset.

For those in London, the medals can be seen at the British Museum throughout the Games.

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