July 16, 2012
by Maya Bornstein
Due to the coveted nature of valuable materials, like gold, silver, and platinum, precious metals are usually saved for commodities that are bought and sold by refiners, jewelry makers, and the like. After all, the monetary worth is what makes these substances valuable to potential retailers. Therefore, certain items that are thought to be made of certain precious metals are often made of lower-grade ones, like copper or brass. So what exactly are Olympic medals made of?
The most publicized items of this kind are the medals awarded to winners of sporting events, including Olympic medals. With anticipation mounting for the approaching London games, fans in every country are searching for facts about this ancient athletic competition. Of course, every nation wants their star athletes to be the ones bringing home the gold.
Just as gold itself is one of the world’s most treasured goods, the Olympic gold medal is even more fervently sought after and certainly far rarer. Unlike the metal, however, this yearned-for prize is not actually made of gold. Modern Olympic criteria dictate that the first-place metal must be constructed using no less than 92.5% silver before being coated with about 6 grams of solid gold. This rule is relatively new compared to the age of the Olympic Games. In fact, the last Olympiad to award solid gold medals was in Sweden in 1912 (although during the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece between the 8th century B.C. and the 4th, the prize was not precious metal at all but a wreath made of sacred olive leaves).
Another common institution that evolved from precious metals similar to that of Olympic medals is the convention of coins. The earliest manifestations of coins were made of precious metals. In the case of ancient Anatolia, an alloy of gold and silver, called electrum, was used, whereas bronze was utilized in China in the 9th century B.C. The earliest solid gold and silver coins hailed from Persia and nearby Lydia around 560 B.C. Today’s metallic money is most often made of less valuable alloys and synthetic substances and are only valuable because the government which distributes them assigns them monetary worth.
Most of the world abandoned gold coinage for more cost-efficient materials in the early 1900’s. Nowadays, there are only a few coins made from solid gold, including the American Gold Eagle (worth about $50) and the South African Krugerrand. Manufacturers in contemporary society prefer to save those precious metals for use in more luxurious wares, like jewelry, decoration, and even edible gold leaf. At the end of the day, though, the chemical makeup of the Olympic gold medal certainly doesn’t change its preciousness for the hundreds of athletes competing to call it their own.
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