August 15, 2016 10:26 PM

The History of the Olympic Medals

We’re now a well into the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The event has already sparked so much excitement that it’s hard to keep up, with winners from across the globe proudly showing off their gold, silver, and bronze medals – and rightly so.


Not that the Olympics is just about winning – it’s about team spirit, fun, and staying fit too, amongst many other positive qualities – but we can’t imagine that a portion of the participations aren’t determined to come home with a medal or two.


With that in mind, we thought that it would be interesting to take a close look at the history of the Olympic medals – there’s over a century of it to look at, after all!


Early Olympic medals

We haven’t made a mistake there – we know that the Olympics have been going on for much longer than a century (since 776 BC, in fact), but the first instance of the medals that we know and love today were first awarded in 1896.


Before medals, the winners of the Olympic Games were given things such as olive wreaths and olive branches... we definitely know what we’d prefer. The first modern (ish) Olympics, held in Athens, saw the winners given silver medals and – of course – an olive branch, whilst runners-up received a copper or bronze medal and... an olive branch. Noticing a theme here?


In 1900, most winners received cups or trophies instead of medals. It wasn’t until the 1904 Olympics that the well-known sequence of gold, silver, and bronze medals was established, where it has stood since.


What’s in a medal?

The first Olympic medals in 1896 were designed by the French sculptor Jules-Clement Chaplain, and were made by the Paris Mint, who also made the medals for the 1900 Olympic Games - hosted in Paris. This began the tradition of the host city having the responsibility of minting the medals to the host city.


The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decides the physical properties of the medals and awards, and has the final decision on the design. The IOC also brought about a set of rules regarding the medals, which are as follows;


  • Recipients: The top three competitors receive medals.
  • Shape: Usually circular, featuring an attachment for a chain or ribbon
  • Diameter: A minimum of 60 mm
  • Thickness: A minimum of 3 mm
  • Material: First place - Must be made of silver of at least .925 grade, plated with 6 grams of gold. Second place - .925 silver.  Third place - It is mostly copper with some tin and zinc.
  • The sport for which the medal has been awarded should be written on the medal.



A rich and interesting history

Although the design has varied with each year, it is always primarily based on a design called the Trionfo design, which was chosen as winner of a competition launched by the IOC in 1928. The design - created by Giuseppe Cassioli - depicted Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, holding a crown and palm with the Colosseum in the background. There was a space left in the top right of the medal for the name of the host country and the numeral of the game’s year. The reverse of the medal showed a crowd of people carrying a triumphant athlete. This design presided for 40 years after first being presented at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, until the 1972 Summer Olympics became the first games to have a different design for the reverse side of the medal.


This design was used – if slightly modified – up until the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, where there was controversy and negative reactions from the Greek press to the latest deisgn, as it showed the Roman Colosseum instead of the Greek Parthenon.  Changes were made, but the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games left the medals unchanged as it was too late and too costly to implement the changes. However, a new design showing the Parthenon was introduced at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, where it has been used since.


You can check out each of the summer and winter Olympic medals since 1896 on the Olympic website here.


Aford Awards trophy specialists were excited to look back at the history of such a prestigious event and the medals that athletes across the globe hope to bring home. 

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