Gold, Silver and Bronze: The Colors of the Olympics

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games are about to descend upon London from July 27–August 12. This year, 204 countries and territories from around the globe are sending their finest athletes to compete for national honor and those highly coveted gold, silver and bronze medals.

Approximately 10,500 delegates will bring their best efforts to 302 events from 26 separate sports. Of that number only 2,100 athletes will step up to the podiums for the 302 victory ceremonies, which will be held at 30 different venues. Third-place, fourth-place and winning team members will receive official diplomas, but the coveted gold medal is the prize about which every athlete dreams.

Interestingly, gold medals were not part of the original Greek Olympics, which were first held in 776 B.C. At that time, olive wreaths were presented to the best competitors. It was not until 1896 and the instituting of the “Modern” Olympics when medals were awarded. At that time, first-place winners received a silver award, second-place winners went home with bronze, and third-place winners left empty-handed. Four years later, in 1900, cups, trophies and other prizes were offered in lieu of medals. It is recorded that one track-and-field star accepted an umbrella as a token of his success. In 1904, the tradition of presenting gold for first place, silver for second place and bronze for third place became firmly established.

Both Greek mythology and medieval history have contributed to the choosing of gold, silver and bronze as appropriate award medals. For the Greeks, these metals represented the first three Ages of Man: gold symbolized the Golden Age, when man was purported to live among the gods; silver spoke of a period of prolonged youthfulness, which could last 100 years; and bronze was a reminder of countless heroes around which stories of courage and valor were woven. In the medieval ages, yellow metals such as gold or brass were offered for recognition of military accomplishment. In the 1700s, gold presentations were also made to those who were outstanding in the fine arts.

Today’s Olympic gold and silver medals are both actually 92.5 percent silver. The gold medal contains a mere 1.34 percent of real gold, which is contained in its outer gilding. The bronze medal is 97 percent copper, 2.5 percent zinc and 0.5 percent tin. The last solid-gold medals were presented at the 1912 Olympics. They weighed 25 grams and were worth about $750 each.

While the International Olympic Committee reserves the right to approve each year's Olympic medals, they are always the responsibility of the the host country. Great Britain has used respected British artist David Watkins to design this year’s awards and 15 employees at the Royal Mint in South Wales to strike the medals. Larger than normal, they weigh 400 grams and are 7 mm in thickness and 85 mm in diameter. On the obverse, or front side, each medal portrays Nike, the goddess of victory in front of the Greek Panathinaiko Stadium. The 2012 Olympic logo is superimposed over the historic Thames River on the reverse, or back side.

In 1896, Greece set the record for most medals won with 46 silver and bronze awards. The United States came home with 20. However, for all-time records, the United States has accumulated 2,296 medals, more than twice as many as its nearest competitor, the former Soviet Union. This summer, the world will be watching to see if Michael Phelps, the phenomenal Team USA swimmer, can win just three more gold, silver or bronze medals to become the most-decorated Olympic athlete of all times. Let the games begin!