At the moment the Olympic Games are in full swing in Rio de Janeiro/Brasil. The Netherlands is a small country with a great sporting history, so we are expecting a lot of medals to win. Mostly we are getting disappointed, but we cheer our lungs out when ‘we’ have a medal: gold silver or bronze is not (very) important. But that medal is crucial. As a first class magpie I was wondering where the tradition of gold, silver or bronze medals comes from and whether those medals are really the value of the gold, silver and bronze. Well this is what I found…

The origine of the Olympic Games is a mysterious story. The most popular story tells us that Heracles and his father Zeus started the Games and decided that they were held every four years. Probably the first Olympic Games were in 776 BC and we know that because we founded an incription of winners of a footrace in one of the buildings of Olympia.

The temple of Zeus in Olympia and the staues of Zeus and Heracles.

The temple of Zeus in Olympia and the staues of Zeus and Heracles.



Ancient Greece was not an unity, but an amount of citystates, that fought all the time to gain more power (what is new?). And the Olympic Games were religious and athletic festivals. In the ancient games mostly atletic competitions were featured, like running, a pentathlon (jumping, discus and a kind of spear throwing, a footrace and wrestling), boxing, wrestling, horse and chariot racing (pankration) and equestian events. It was said that Coroebus, a cook from the citystate of Elis, was the first Olympic Champion.

Coroebus did not receive a golden medal because he won the game. Herakles decided (according to the legends) that his prize was an olive wreath, made of the wild olive tree that grew at Olympia. That wreath was called a kotinos.

Herodotus, a famous Greec adventurer and historian mentioned the wreath as a prize for winning the game. His book mentioned the Battle of Thermopylae, where you could hardly find any Greec warrriors on the battlefield, since they were all participating in the Olympic Games. In Thermopylae a small army of soldiers from the Greec citystates kept the Persian troops from conquering Greece. Herodotus quoted an Armenian general: “Good heavens! what kind of men are these against whom you have brought us to fight? Men who do not compete for possessions, but for honour”. This part of the book of Herodotus ‘proves’ that the winner of the Olympic games did not get a medal, but a wreath and a lifelong fame.

Sports of the pentathlon and a map of the Greec citystates.

Sports of the pentathlon and a map of the Greec citystates.

Historians thought a long time that during the Games all conflicts between the citystates were stopped until the Games were over. This was called the Olympic peace or truce. But the truth is that the Greec citystates never ended their hostilities; they kept on fighting not only in the Games, but also in the field. This truce did allow the pelgrim, who wanted to visit the religious festivals on the Olympic, to pass the battlefields unharmed because Zeus (the most important god of Greece) protected them.

The Olympic Games were not all about sport, as today. This festival was an important religious festival too. During this festival time the pelgrim horored Zeus and Pelops, who was a divine hero and the mythical king of Olympia. Pelops won a chariot race of King Oenomaus of Pisatis. Winners of Olympic games were admired and their name became immortilized in inscriptions, statues and poems or myths. The Games were so important to Greece that they used the period of four years (between one Game and the next one) as a unit of time measurement.

Between the 6th and the 5th century BC the Olympic Games were very very popular, but when the Romans took over the power in Greece, the Games declined in importance. It ended whether in 393 BC when the Roman emperor Theodosius ! decided that all pagan cults should be stopped and the Olympic Games was considered a pagan cult by the emperor or when the Games ended in 426 BC when Theodosius II destructed all temples in Greece, and also the temple of Olympia where the religious festival was held.

sports at the ancient Olympic games

sports at the ancient Olympic games

In 1898 the Olympic Games had a revival and at this times they started to reward the winners of one of the competitions in the Games, with a medal: a gold, silver or bronze one. But why did they use these metals? That is another story in the Greec mythology:

In that mythology there was a Golden Age, a Silver and a Bronze Age. In the Golden Age men lived with the gods in peace and in the Silver Age men started to get weak and in this Age youth lasted (only)100 years. The Bronze Age was not so good for mankind, because there was a lot of war.

That may be clear that the Golden Age was the best time ever, and the winners of the Olympic games should get a golden prize or medal. There is a funny story, that Zeus wanted to give the winners a golden prize, but he was too poor to do that (in the play of Aristophanes). And it looked like the organizers of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens/Greece in 1896 were poor too, since the winners got a silver medal and an laurel wreath and the second place was rewarded with a bronze (copper) medal.

Prizes on the 'modern' Olympic Games of 1896

Prizes on the ‘modern’ Olympic Games of 1896

Four years later the winners got works of art as a prize, but in 1904 in St Louis/USA finally the winners started to get a golden medal, the second prize was a silver medal and the third one got a bronze medal. Until 1912 the medals were of pure gold, silver and bronze, but nowadays the gold medal is made of silver with a layer of 6 grams of gold (value around $ 500). The silver medal contains 550 gram of 925 silver (value $250) and the bronze medal is made of copper with some tin and zinc (value is $3).

The Olympic medals are designed by famous artisans, and minted in the country that organizes the Games. So every four years the medals has a different ‘look’. The reverse side of the medals was designed and used from the Games in Amsterdam/The Netherlands (1928) and only the years and the place was updated. In 2000 there was a little scandal since they used for the reverse side a ‘picture’ of the Roman Colosseum instead of the Greec Parthenon. There was no time to change the design, but at the Games in Athens/Greece they had the chance to change it and they did.

The medals for the Winter Games were a bit different since 1992. The hosts included different materials in the medals, like glass, sparagmite and lacquer. At the Summer Games in Beijing/China they used jade in the medals.

You can wonder why (besides of the story in the Greec mythology about the Ages) gold, silver and bronze were chosen for making the medals. That needs a bit of explanation. Long ago, millions of years, the galaxy was formed by the explosion of a star and in that star were elements that formed our solarsystem. The heavier elements are more rare than the lighter elements and in the periodic table the lighter elements are on the top of the table. Gold, silver and bronze/copper are placed in the same column in the periodic table and have the same characteristics. Copper (bronze is mostly copper) is at the top of the column, so least rare, silver is placed under copper and is more scarce than copper, but not so rare than gold, that is just under silver in the column. That’s the reason why people took these materials to make medals from and the explanation why the winner gets the medal made from the more scarce and most valuable material.

Silver, gold and bronze Olympic medal

Silver, gold and bronze Olympic medal

When you look at the alchemist side of the issue… the old alchemist symbol of gold consists of a circle with a sphere in the middle (the sun). The old alchemist symbol of silver has to do with the moon. Bronze is a combination of copper and tin, and this combination has no old alchemist symbol.

Now you know everything about the medals of the Olympic Games and why the gold medal is for the winner. My magpie mind suggests the IOC to add some gemstones to the medals, like diamond, garnet and opal, nicely faceted of course. Let’s be honest: the winner of the gold medal trained four years to become the winner. They are mostly amateurs and their sport costs money instead of earning something. The golden medal is worth around $500. So why not add some value with setting some great gemstones in those medals. And it looks so pretty.

Untitled design (4)

On the other hand the sporters are not sporting for the value of the medal, but for the eternal fame. But then I see a picture of the winners in the newspaper biting on their medal: trying to find out whether it’s real gold???

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