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Where do Olympic Medals Come From?

The answer is not the stork. Rather, the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals awarded to the world’s finest athletes begin their journey in Utah, in Kennecott Utah Copper’s mine. The mine, owned by mining giant Rio Tinto (based in London) is visible from space and provides 99% of all the metal behind the medals.

Contrary to what you might believe, the gold medal’s value lies primarily in its sentimental meaning, not its gold content, which is less than 2% – the majority is silver (more than 92%) with copper finishing out the alloy. According to JCK, the 2nd and third place medals aren’t pure to their monikers either:

“… silver medals are composed of 92.5 percent silver, and 7.5 percent copper; bronze medals consist of 97 percent copper, 2.5 percent zinc, and 0.5 percent tin.”

The last time solid gold medals were handed out were at 1912’s Stockholm Olympic Games, and had only been the standard for 1st place since the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. Modern medals are a more labor intensive process.

At this point, Kennecott shipped everything to the Royal Mint in London for quality inspection. before they were sent out for casting in Madrid and Birmingham, England. Then, according to ESPN:

“The mint assigned a team of 30 employees to work solely on the medals. Since each medal undergoes close to 22 processes, the employees, known as the Athena Project Team, brought different specialties. Bunney said they calculated that each medal took approximately 10 hours of working time.”

The Mint had to fight for its right to create the historic prizes, and eventually won the rights to create this year’s 4,700 medals.

Also bidding for their part in creating the medals? The designers! The Olympic organizing committee invited select artists from all over the UK to submit their designs before voting on the favorite in conjunction with the British Museum’s Keeper of Coins and Medals. Eventually, the judges decided on British artist David Watins, who is also a jeweler and professor of goldsmithing at London’s Royal College of Art.

Watkins design depicts the traditional design of Greek Goddess of victory, Nike on one side, with a more modern, abstract design on the back. According to The Omlypics’ official site:

– 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, and is deliberately jewel-like.    – 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, emphasising its focus on the centre and reinforcing the sense of ‘place’ as in a map inset.

After the designs were struck onto the medals, each medal was sand blasted and burnished to create a gloss finish. Next up, inspections and hallmark engraving, before the individual sport is inscribed on each medal. After that, the medals are coated in lacquer to prevent tarnishing before the ribbons are individually sewn onto each medal for the precise location of the 5 Olympic rings.

The process to create these most rare of trophies seems so labor intensive, but completely warranted for the enormous preparations that the athletes aspiring to them are making. A medal so thoughtfully created and crafted is only appropriate for the greatest athletes in the world.

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