Olympic gold medals are metaphorically made of blood, sweat, and tears. They’re made of early mornings and late nights, of sacrifices and compromises. They’re made of long hours spent in the pool and in the weight room. The life of a serious competitive swimmer is marred with sacrifice and physical pain.
But Olympic medals also have a literal value. While none of the three designations (gold, silver, or bronze) are made primarily of those metals, they do have very real, market-defined metal values.
Following the Olympic Standard, gold medals are comprised of only about 1% gold, 92.5% silver, with the remainder being bronze. At current market prices, the 1% or about 6 grams of gold used in plating the Rio medals would be worth $249.42 (priced at $41.57 per gram). The 92.5% of the medal that is comprised of silver is then worth $259 (priced at $0.56 per gram). Thus, at today’s prices a gold medal from Rio would be worth $508.42.
The gold medals from London were comprised of 6 grams or about 1.3% gold, and 92.5% silver, with the remainder being bronze. The value of the gold from those medals was about $304 in August 2012, while the silver portion, weighing in at about 364.45 grams and worth around $320 at the time, made the total value of a London 2012 gold medal $625 during the London games. While the medals from London weighed in at 400 grams, Rio’s medals are a whopping 500 grams, though the values of commodities are always fluctuating.
The silver medals, which are comprised of 93% silver–30% of which was recycled from items like mirrors and X-ray plates–and 7% copper, boast a silver value of $260.40 at today’s prices. Bronze medals are mostly comprised of copper, and at the times of the London Olympics in 2012, the market value of one of those bronze medals was less than $5.
In addition to the precious medals that will hang from victorious athletes’ necks this summer, many countries also offer financial incentives for athletes to perform at their best during the Olympics. The United States Olympic Committee offers cash prizes of $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze. Azerbaijan offers as much as $510,000 to athletes that win gold medals at the Olympics, Russia $135,000, and Thailand $314,000, though paid out over a 20-year period. China has also been known to offer either generous cash prizes for Olympic hardware, cars, or apartments and housing for its victorious athletes and their families, and sometimes a combination of all three. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, offers no additional cash incentive to its athletes, though almost every country offers something for Olympic success.
When sold at auction some medals go for extraordinary amounts. Anthony Ervin sold the gold he won in Sydney in 2000 in the 50 free for $17,000, and donated the earning to victims of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Ukranian boxer Wladamir Klitschko, boxing champ from Atlanta 1996, sold his gold medal for $1 million and used the money to fund Klitschko Brothers Foundation, which is dedicated to funding children’s sports in Ukraine.
Throughout the years the medals have been customized by each host nation to reflect each country’s identity and style. As the customizable designs on the reverse of the medals has changed, so have the weight and size of each Olympics’ medals. The IOC has established that all Summer Olympic medals must be at least 60 mm in diameter (also stipulating that medals must be circular) and at least 3 mm thick.
The medals that will be awarded in Rio are the first-ever Olympic medals that will be slightly thicker in their centers than their edges. Aside from the aesthetic appearance of this unique design feature, the added thickness in the center of the medal provides a functional use for the Paralympic medals. Inside each Paralympic medal is a tiny steel ball which produces a rattle when shaken. This feature is intended to help visually impaired athletes differentiate the medal from one another. The gold medals make the loudest noise, the bronze rattle quietest, with the silver falling in between. The Paralympic medals also feature a brail engraving so that visually-impaired athletes will be able to read the message written on each medal.
While many Olympic medals have been presented in boxes for safe-keeping, Rio has decided to use wood from the indigenous freijó, found in the Amazon. The trays that the medals are presented upon will also be made of wood, though from the curupixá tree, another Amazonian species. The Rio organizers also boast plans of turning the medal podiums into furniture after the games have concluded, in another effort to keep up their sustainability theme. Half of the materials used in the ribbons from which the medals hang are crafted from recycled plastic water bottles, while 40% of the copper used in the bronze medals was recycled from leftovers of the Brazilian mint.
In the end, Olympic medals are only as valuable as athletes and fans believe they are. A collector may be willing to pay millions for an athlete’s gold medal, but that athlete may never sell it, because they believe that they work they put in to earn their medal–whatever the color–is, for lack of a better word, priceless. For others like Poland’s Otylia Jedrzejczak, the memory is the most important part, and the fact that her medal fetched $80,000 at auction is only important insofar as it can help children with Leukemia.