The Olympic Gold Medals Are Mostly Silver Because Zeus Is So Poor
We read about the winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and are bombarded with stories about the most excellent contestants winning medals. The most prestigious of these medals, of course, are “gold.” Except they’re not.
The denotation of the top awards as “gold medals” is more symbolic rather than real. As Wikipedia summarizes:
At the modern Olympic Games, winners of a sporting discipline receive a gold medal in recognition of their achievement.
At the 1896 Summer Olympics, winners received a silver medal and the second-place finisher received a bronze medal. In 1900, most winners received cups or trophies instead of medals. The next three Olympics (1904, 1908, 1912) awarded the winners solid gold medals, but the medals themselves were smaller. The use of gold rapidly declined with the onset of the First World War and also with the onset of the Second World War. The last series of Olympic medals to be made of solid gold were awarded at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
Olympic Gold medals are required to be made from at least 92.5% silver, and must contain a minimum of 6-grams of gold.
At the first Olympic Games back in 776 BCE, competitors did not receive medals. Instead, the top athletes were crowned with wreaths made of olive leaves. This tradition continued until Roman emperor Theodosius I (or perhaps his son) abolished the Olympics around the year 400 CE. The revival of the Olympics dates from the late 19th century, with the first modern Games taking place in 1896. The awarding of medals arose around this time as well, though its roots lie in ancient Greek mythology.
The materials gold, silver, and bronze play a major role in the Ages of Man, which form the basic timeline of Greek mythology. The Golden Age refers to a time when men lived among the gods in peace and harmony. The Silver Age is characterized by impiety and human weakness, and in this time, youth lasted 100 years. The Bronze Age marks a period of war and violence. Following these ages are the Heroic Age (the time when the heros' of the Trojan War lived) and the Iron Age (modern times). The Greek poet Hesiod includes all five ages in his famous didactic poem Works and Days, written around 700 BCE.
However Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written around 8 CE, omits the Heroic Age.
Gold has long been thought to be a precious metal thanks to its scarcity and its luminous color. In his play Plutus, first produced in 408 BCE, comic playwright Aristophanes jokingly suggests that the winners of the Olympics would receive gold as their prize, if only Zeus weren’t so poor:
Why, Zeus is poor, and I will clearly prove it to you. In the Olympic games, which he founded, and to which he convokes the whole of Greece every four years, why does he only crown the victorious athletes with wild olive? If he were rich he would give them gold.
Perhaps this humorous passage, or others like it, inspired the fathers of the modern Olympic Games to present gold to the top athletes, though the implementation of this coveted prize didn’t happen right away. At the first modern Olympic Games, which took place in Athens in 1896, winners received silver medals and olive branches (there wasn’t enough money to mint gold ones), and the runners-up received bronze medals. The second modern Games took place in Paris in 1900, and winners actually received valuable paintings and works of art rather than gold medals. Four years later in St. Louis, the first-, second-, and third-place athletes were awarded the gold, silver, and bronze medals. The tradition of awarding solid-gold medals to champions was short lived, ending after the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. The gold medals of today are mostly silver and are gilt with six grams of gold.
The market value of an Olympic medal is, of course, much higher than the metal content itself. As Mental Floss pointed out some years ago:
For this year’s London Games, the gold medals are roughly 93% silver, 6% copper and 1% gold (as of this writing, that’s about $300 worth of gold). The silver medals are 92% silver and 8% copper. The bronze medals are 97% copper, 2.5% zinc and 0.5% tin.
The medals have a value beyond the worth of their precious metal content, though. They’re pieces of history, and can command high asking prices on the market. A gold medal from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" American hockey team was auctioned off for over $300,000 a few years ago...
There might be both historical and symbolic exonerations for the Olympic Gold medals to be thus adulterated. In the classical Olympics in ancient Greece a wreath of olive leaves was bestowed upon the winner. A gold medal is a token of world-class excellence achieved.
The market value, or lack thereof, of its materials is trivial… although, in the multi-billion dollar exercise of the Olympic games it seems rather tawdry to skimp, for whatever reason, on the gold. The 2018 gold medal weighs 586 grams. If that were pure gold it would be worth around $25,000.
Since 259 gold medals reportedly will be awarded, at that weight gold would cost the Olympic Committee about $6.5 million extra. Which sounds like a lot. Except, the 2018 Olympics are estimated by the Associated Press to cost nearly $13 billion. An extra $6.5 million to do true justice to the gold medals would be .005 – half a percent -- of the total cost. A rounding error.
One wishes the International Olympic Committee would, so to speak, up its game. Zeus might be poor. The IOC certainly is not.
There is a larger point. As an investment, rather than a symbolic artifact, gold is a commodity, albeit a noble metal and a precious one. Its value is based on its purity and weight times the market price. A different standard applies.
Naïve buyers are vulnerable to fraud. As NBC News reported in a 2016 segment, Glitters, but Not Gold: Fake Gold and Silver Coins ‘Flooding’ Market:
Counterfeit coins are “flooding the market at an astonishing rate,” and compromising the investments of collectors, according to the American Numismatic Association (ANA).
“It’s a very serious problem and it’s really scary,” said Rod Gillis, ANA’s education director. “With improved technology, the fakes are getting better. It’s gotten to the point where even people who deal with coins all the time may not be able to recognize a counterfeit coin right away.”
Get fooled and you could pay $1,300 or more for a counterfeit one-ounce gold piece that’s worthless. And you may not discover you’ve been taken until you go to sell it and a dealer tells you that coin is a fake.
Fraud is not limited to counterfeit coins. Bars are also vulnerable. As reported by Business Insider in 2012 A Manhattan Jeweler Wound Up With Gold Bars Filled With Tungsten:
A gold dealer in Manhattan's Diamond District on 47th Street discovered last week that an evidently certified gold bar was in fact more than 75 percent Tungsten.
Ten-ounce bars are thicker, making them harder to detect if counterfeited — the standard X-rays used by dealers don't penetrate deep enough.
Plus, the bars had been sealed and numbered. So whoever did this must be running an extremely sophisticated operation, Fadl said. "It's a shame. This business is built on trust."
The FBI and Secret Service are investigating the incident, but Fadl wonders whether it's within their power to curb the practice, given the incentives involved.
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