With the 2010 Winter Olympics upon us, it may be time to look back at the history of what the competitors will be all striving for – the Olympic Medal.
The 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, are already a distant memory for most people. But the medal-winning athletes who participated have a daily and permanent reminder of their great feats: their Olympic medals.
Even at the first modern Olympiad in 1896, organizers realized the power of a beautiful medal. The first-place winners were given silver medals instead of gold, but they didn’t mind–after all, the winners of the second Olympic Games were given pieces of modern art as their prize! That ended quickly at the next Games when the medal presentation was revived, and since then the Olympic medals have been a symbol of international dedication and sportsmanship – on and off the field.
It is impossible to say how many medals have been given out over the years, says Barbara Gresham, senior media coordinator at the U.S. Olympic Committee, because the way the medals are distributed has changed. For instance, today swimmers participating in preliminary qualifying rounds of medal-winning relay teams are awarded a medal even if they don’t swim in the final event. Similarly, the entire basketball team now gets medals, whereas only players who actually saw court time in the medal-winning game used to receive them.
The host country is responsible for the design and production of the athlete’s medals. As the next host city prepares to host the Games, American firms are gearing up to present their designs to the organizing committee, which generally holds a contest to find the best and most creative medal design.
A Pressured Situation
It is a long and very detailed process. The manufacturer begins the actual production in January and delivers the medals in May. Sent in the shipment were 604 gold, 604 silver and 630 bronze medals.
The production process begins with a three-dimensional clay model of both the front and back of the medal. The front of each medal was the same, but the backs were customized with a pictogram depicting each sport’s athlete in action. Thirty-one different models had to be made for the backsides. “It was modeled three times the actual size.” “You can get it a little more accurate when you pantograph it down (that way).”
Plaster-rubber molds were then made with an epoxy that is easily pantographed. To make the dies, the mold was taken to the pantograph machine, where the design was reduced to actual size – 70 millimeters in diameter (2 3/4 inch) and 5 millimeters thick (3/8 inch – and traced into steel. The resulting steel hubs are actually positive replications of the models. The die is then made from the hubs.
To make the medals, the front and back dies are stamped together. “They’re not struck so much as they are squeezed.” The dies come together under 1,000 tons per inch of pressure. “It’s an incredible amount of power; each piece had to be resqueezed three times to get the detail up into the die.” To ensure a perfect match with the die before being resqueezed, each medal was individually placed and checked by hand as it lay in the die.
Making the gold medal was harder than the others. There are very strict guidelines for the materials used; the gold medal must be made out of sterling silver and contain at a minimum 6 grams of pure gold. One of the most difficult things to do technically was the gold medal. It’s a sandwich of gold with sterling (inside). It had to be centered (and struck) at a specific temperature so the metals would bond. Just gold plating the silver wouldn’t have been enough gold. It has to be clad and then gold plated because of the silver (edges).
Each medal was engraved on the edge with the event name. Medals were then polished and drilled for ribbon holes. The ribbon holder was soldered in place, the embroidered ribbon attached and then the medals were placed into special presentation cases.
The Gold (and Silver and Bronze) Standard
The International Olympic Committee has strict guidelines on the production of the Olympic medals. According to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Gresham, the medals must be at least 60 millimeters in diameter and 3 millimeters thick. The silver in both the gold and silver medals must be at least 925-1000 grade, the gold medal must have at least 6 grams of pure gold and the bronze medal must be pure bronze.
All medal designs must be approved by the games’ organizing committee, the country’s Olympic committee, and finally the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board. Although the Winter Games haven’t had a consistent standard design on either the front or the back, “The summer medals’ design has been basically the same since 1928 on the front,” says Gresham. “The organizing committee can add a personal design on the rear.” This unique design element usually reflects the character of the city and country where the Games are being held.
The main figure is Lady Victory holding a wreath over her head and carrying palm leaves. The ancient Olympic stadium in Greece is in the background with a horse-drawn chariot in front of it. The front is finished with the image of a Grecian urn and the official Olympic rings. The date and place of the games also appears on the front.
For the Atlanta games the focus of the medals’ rear was a quilt of leaves to symbolize both the host city of Atlanta and the spirit of the Olympic games. Quilt-making is a long-time Southern tradition and quilts are a symbol of unity, a marriage of nations and cultures blended together, a continuing theme of the Olympics. The leaves woven into the quilt both reflect Atlanta – known as the City of Trees – and Olympic history – in the past, a crown of olive leaves went to the victors. The pictograms of athletes on the back were designed to look like ancient Greek urn paintings.
The Post-Medal Life
The manufacturer also made 60,000 commemorative solid bronze medals, which were given to all participating athletes, sponsors, officials and others involved in creating the 1996 Summer Games. There were 271 medal events in Atlanta, in contrast to the recent 1998 Nagano Winter Games, in which there were only 68. The U.S. Olympics Committee restricts American athletes from using their medals in advertising; the designers and manufacturers of the medals are similarly restrained.
The medals for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games won’t be identical to Atlanta’s striking medals, but one similarity is sure to occur: The medals will bring the same feelings of joy, amazement and pride to the medal-winning athletes and their countries.
© 1998, Awards and Recognition Association