As far as the value of the raw materials in them, this varies from Olympiad to Olympiad. For the current 2012 Olympics in London, the medals are the largest of any in Summer Olympic history, weighing in at 400g for the gold medal. Of this 400g, 394g is sterling silver (364.45g silver / 29.55g copper) with 6g of 24 karat gold plating. At the current going rate for gold and silver, this means a gold medal in the London Olympics is worth about $624, with $304 of the value coming from the gold and about $320 coming from the sterling silver.
Of course, athletes can often get much more than this selling the medals on the open market, particularly for momentous medals, like the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 men’s U.S. hockey team gold medal. Mark Wells, a member of that team, auctioned his medal off in 2012 and received $310,700 for it, which he needed to help pay for medical treatment.
Most auctioned medals don’t go for nearly this much, though. For instance, Anthony Ervin’s 50 meter freestyle gold medal won in 2000, even with all proceeds going to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, only sold for $17,100. John Konrads’ 1500 meter freestyle gold medal won in 1960 only sold for $11,250 in 2011. This is a great return in terms of what the raw value of the materials are worth, but certainly nowhere close to Mark Wells’ medal.
Gold medals in the Olympics weren’t always made mostly of silver. Before the 1912 Olympics, they were made of solid gold. However, they tended to be much smaller than modern medals. For instance, the 1900 Paris gold medals were only 3.2 mm thick, with a 59 mm diameter, weighing just 53g. For perspective, the London 2012 medals are 7 mm thick, with a diameter of 85 mm and, as mentioned, weigh 400g. The 1900 Paris gold medals at today’s value of gold are worth about $2685. For the 1912 games in Stockholm, the last year the gold medals were made of solid gold, the value of the gold medals at current prices of gold would be $1207.86.
If the current 2012 Olympic gold medals were made out of solid gold, they’d be worth about $20,266 each. This may seem do-able, considering how much money the Olympics brings in, until you consider just how many medals are awarded during each summer Olympics. For instance, in these 2012 Olympics, about 4,700 medals will be given out, so over 1500 gold medals. At $20,266 each, that would be just shy of $32 million dollars for the gold medal materials alone.
As it is, with the current gold medals having about $624 worth of materials, then $330 for the silver medals (93% silver, 7% copper), and $4.70 for the bronze (which are mostly made of copper, with a very small amount of zinc and tin), about $1.5 million is still being spent on the materials alone for the medals awarded, not to mention the cost of minting them.
- Strict guidelines are set for the minting of Olympic medals. For instance, for gold medals the silver must be 92.5% pure silver (with 7.5% copper), and they must include at least 6g of gold for plating the medal. They also must be at least 3mm thick and 60mm in diameter.
- Nobel Prize gold medals really are made of mostly gold. Today they are made with 24 karat gold plating and 18 karat green gold (gold with a small amount of silver) for the rest. Before 1980, they were made from 23 karat gold.
- The practice of giving out gold and silver medals is thought to have its origins with the military. Before a standard set of military awards were created, it was common to reward soldiers (in a variety of militaries throughout the world) for special achievements by giving them gold and silver medals. For instance, in the United States, special awards were given to commanding officers in the form of gold medals and the officers under that commander would receive silver medals.
- The gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, being smaller than the current medals (Barcelona medals at 9.8 mm thick, 70 mm in diameter, weighing 231g) are only worth about $484 at the current price of gold and silver.
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