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A silver medal awarded to the winner of an event at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
A silver medal awarded to the winner of an event at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

An Olympic medal is awarded to successful competitors at one of the Olympic Games. There are three classes of medal: gold, awarded to the winner; silver, awarded to the 1st runner-up; and bronze, awarded to the second runner-up. The granting of awards is laid out in detail in the Olympic protocols.

Medal designs have varied considerably since the first Olympic Games in 1896, particularly in size and weight. A standard obverse (front) design of the medals for the Summer Olympic Games began in 1928 and remained for many years, until its replacement at the 2004 Games as the result of controversy surrounding the use of the Roman Colosseum rather than a building representing the Games' Greek roots. The medals of the Winter Olympic Games never had a common design, but regularly feature snowflakes and the event where the medal has been won.

In addition to generally supporting their Olympic athletes, some countries provide sums of money and gifts to medal winners, depending on the classes and number of medals won.

Total medals won are used to rank competitor nations in medal tables, these may be compiled for a specific discipline, for a particular Games, or over all time. These totals always total event placements rather than actual medals — a victory in a team event (such as relay race) equates to a single gold for such rankings even though each team member would receive a physical medal.

Introduction and early history

The olive wreath was the prize for the winner at the Ancient Olympic Games. It was an olive branch, off the wild-olive tree that grew at Olympia,[1] intertwined to form a circle or a horse-shoe. According to Pausanias it was introduced by Heracles as a prize for the winner of the running race to honour Zeus.[2]

When the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 medals started to be given to successful olympian competitors. However, gold medals were not awarded at the inaugural Olympics in 1896 in Athens, Greece.[3] The winners were instead given a silver medal and an olive branch,[4] while runners-up received a laurel branch and a copper or bronze medal.[5] In 1900, most winners received cups or trophies instead of medals.

The custom of the sequence of gold, silver, and bronze for the first three places dates from the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri in the United States. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has retroactively assigned gold, silver and bronze medals to the three best placed athletes in each event of the 1896 and 1900 Games.[6][7] If there is a tie for any of the top three places all competitors are entitled to receive the appropriate medal according to IOC rules.[8] Some combat sports (such as boxing, judo, taekwondo and wrestling) award two bronze medals per competition, resulting in, overall, more bronze medals being awarded than the other colours.

Medals are not the only awards given to competitors; every athlete placed first to eighth receives an Olympic diploma. Also, at the main host stadium, the names of all medal winners are written onto a wall.[8] Finally, as noted below, all athletes receive a participation medal and diploma.

Production and design

The IOC dictates the physical properties of the medals and has the final decision about the finished design. Specifications for the medals are developed along with the National Olympic Committee (NOC) hosting the Games, though the IOC has brought in some set rules:[8][9]

  • 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 (the Gold medal): It is composed at least 92.5% of silver, plated with 6 grams of gold. Second place (the Silver medal): 92.5% silver.[10] Third place (the Bronze medal): It is 97.0% copper with 0.5% tin and 2.5% zinc; the metal value was about US$3 in 2010.[11]
  • Event details: The sport for which the medal has been awarded should be written on the medal

The first Olympic medals in 1896 were designed by French sculptor Jules-Clément Chaplain and depicted Zeus holding Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, on the obverse and the Acropolis on the reverse.[3] They were made by the Paris Mint, which also made the medals for the 1900 Olympic Games, hosted by Paris. This started the tradition of giving the responsibility of minting the medals to the host city. For the next few Olympiads the host city also chose the medal design. Until 1912 the gold medals were made of solid gold.[12]

In 1923 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) launched a competition for sculptors to design the medals for the Summer Olympic Games. Giuseppe Cassioli's Trionfo design was chosen as the winner in 1928.[3][13][14] The obverse brought back Nike but this time as the main focus, holding a winner's crown and palm with a depiction of the Colosseum in the background.[13] In the top right section of the medal a space was left for the name of the Olympic host and the Games numeral. The reverse features a crowd of people carrying a triumphant athlete. His winning design was first presented at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. The competition saw this design used for 40 years until the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich became the first Games with a different design for the reverse side of the medal.[3]

Cassioli's design continued to inspire the obverse of the medal for many more years, though recreated each time, with the Olympic host and numeral updated. The obverse remained true to the Trionfo design until the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, where the IOC allowed an updated version to be created. For the next few events they mandated the use of the Nike motif but allowed other aspects to change.[9] The trend ended in 2004 due to the negative publicity in reaction to the design of medal for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Wojciech Pietranik, the designer of the medal, along with the organisers of the Games were criticised by the Greek press for using the Roman Colosseum rather than the Greek Parthenon.[3][15] Pietranik's original design had featured the Sydney Opera House on the obverse but the IOC concluded that it should be replaced by the Colosseum and a chariot rider. He made the changes and, despite the criticism, the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games decided to continue with the design as it was, noting that there was insufficient time to complete another version and that it would be very costly.[9] The error had remained for 76 years until a new style depicting the Panathenaic Stadium was introduced at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.[16] This new obverse design is currently in use since then.

The German Olympic Committee, Nationales Olympisches Komitee für Deutschland, were the first Summer Games organisers to elect to change the reverse of the medal. The 1972 design was created by Gerhard Marcks, an artist from the Bauhaus, and features mythological twins Castor and Pollux.[17] Since then the Organising Committee of the host city has been given the freedom of the design of the reverse, with the IOC giving final approval.

The IOC has the final decision on the specifications of each design for all Olympic medals, including the Summer Games, Winter Games, and Paralympic Games. There has been a greater variety of design for the Winter Games; unlike with the Summer Games, the IOC never mandated one particular design. The medal at the inaugural 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France did not even feature the Olympic rings. Nike was featured on the medals of the 1932 and 1936 Games but has only appeared on one medal design since then. One regular motif is the use of the snowflake, while laurel leaves and crowns appear on several designs. The Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius features on four Winter Games medals but does not appear on any Summer Games medal.

For three events in a row, hosts of the Winter Games included different materials in the medals: glass (1992), sparagmite (1994), and lacquer (1998). It was not until the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China that a Summer Olympic host chose to use something different, in this case jade. While every Summer Olympic medal except for the 1900 Games has been circular, the shapes of the Winter Games have been considerably more varied. The Winter Games medals are also generally larger, thicker, and heavier than those for the Summer Games.

Individual design details

Details about the medals from each of the Summer Olympic Games:[17][18]

Details about the medals from each of the Winter Olympic Games:[3][24]

Participation medals

Since the beginning of the modern Olympics the athletes and their support staffs, event officials, and certain volunteers involved in planning and managing the games have received commemorative medals and diplomas. Like the winners' medals, these are changed for each Olympiad, with different ones issued for the summer and winter games.[27]

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