A short history of medals at the Olympic Games

As of 4 August, Team GB had stacked up an impressive 47 medals at the Tokyo Olympics, including one for skateboarder Sky Brown, making her Britain’s youngest ever Olympian medallist at the age of 13. Team GB has 14 gold medals, 18 silver and 15 bronze, putting the team fifth in the competition overall at the time of writing.

While the Olympics is a long-standing competition that dates back at least 2,700 years ago to Olympia in south west Greece, where thousands of people attended to watch the competitors and honour the Greek god Zeus.

What about the medals themselves? In the early days, the victors received olive wreaths rather than medals, and it was not until the late 19th century that the practice of awarding medals came in.

Olive and laurel branches

The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1896, when winners were awarded silver medals and the second-place eventer took a bronze/copper one. Winners also received an olive branch and a diploma, with second place awarded laurel branches in addition to their medal. Those in third place went home empty-handed.

Gold, silver and bronze for first, second and third started in 1904 at the St Louis Olympic Games. The medals showed the face of Zeus, as well as a globe and Nike—the winged goddess of victory, rather than a logo for the eponymous sports brand! The Acropolis featured on the back of the medal.

These days, the International Olympic Committee, the body responsible for organising the games and the design of the medals, stipulates that each medal must include Nike, the official name of the games taking place that year and the Olympic five rings symbol. This year’s design included public input and recycled metals.

Biting medals

There’s a new tradition where athletes bite their medals. The main reason is said to be that the pose makes a great photograph and that photographers see it as iconic, but it might have origins in the ancient tradition of biting gold coins – something people did years ago to work out if their coins were real gold or not.

Gold is a softer, more malleable metal than most and biting it would leave an indentation. However, today’s ‘gold’ medals contain a mere 1.34 percent gold, so athletes chowing down on them are unlikely to leave toothmarks behind.


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