After seeing Sally Pearson’s fabulous world championship win (missed it or want to watch it again in Italian?) and hearing they had unveiled the 2012 Olympic medals, I just had to have a look at the medals from past Olympics! In the first modern Olympics (1896) winners were presented with a silver medal, an olive branch and a diploma. In 1900 the victors were given cups and trophies. It wasn’t until 1904 that winners were presented with gold, silver and bronze medals, the topic of today’s blog.
Since 1912 gold medals have not been completely gold. In fact they are 93% silver with at least 6% gold plating. Rio Tinto will supply the material for the medals in the London Olympics. There are expected to be 4700 medals required for the Olympics and Paralympic games and the metal is expected to come from the Kennecott Utah Copper mine, USA and the Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia. Kennecott is a copper, silver and gold mine producing 300,000 tons of copper cathode per year and Oyu Tolgoi contains an expected 81 billion pounds of copper and 46 million ounces of gold.
The minting process for the medals is similar to how €2 coins are made. For bronze medals, copper is first mined from ore and processed. The purified copper is melted down and combined with tin (in a ratio of about 8:1) to make the alloy bronze. The bronze is then rolled out into medal-thick sheets and minted by punching the shape and design of the medal into it.
Gold medals, however, are made slightly differently. The silver centre is made in the same way as bronze, but then a layer of gold is electroplated on top. This is similar to a galvanic cell (if you can remember from high school chemistry) where gold ions in solution are deposited onto the silver surface because of a separation of charges. Unlike YouTube versions this would be mechanised so that the layer was evenly spread.
The minting of the medals, as well as the design, is left up to the host country. Surprisingly, since 1916, the design has changed very little. The designs from 1972 until 2000 were variations of an original done by artist Giuseppe Cassioli. In 2004 Greece bucked the trend with a new design and China followed suit in 2008. For the London Olympics next year, the medal includes an image of the Greek goddess Nike (the Goddess of Victory), designed by British artist David Watkins. (If you want to know more, the Powerhouse museum has a whole paper on the Sydney 2000 design brief.)
On a slightly different track, there is a branch of psychology interested in counterfactual thinking. This is based on the relative happiness of bronze and silver medalists. Medvec et al. (1995) explain that ‘the person who is objectively worse off (the bronze medalist) might nonetheless feel more gratified than the person who is objectively better off (the silver medalist)… silver medalists may torment themselves with counterfactual thoughts of “if only …” or “why didn’t I just. …” Bronze medalists, in contrast, may be soothed by the thought that “at least I won a medal.”’
So take a look at the medals on show and, if you have time, also take a look at the back of many of the Summer medal designs.