While public safety and water pollution continue to unnerve casual spectators and Olympic participants alike in the lead-up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the organizers of the 31st Modern Olympiad have not given up promoting environmental sustainability and human perseverance. In accordance with this theme, the medals that will be awarded to the most dominant athletes in the world will echo that same message.
Traditionally, Olympic medals have represented glory, perseverance, hard work, dedication, and strength. In addition to these characteristics of peak athleticism, the medals in Rio will convey a message of sustainability. Crafted at the Brazilian Mint from recycled materials and sustainably-mined metals (mercury-free), Rio’s medals demonstrate that beauty does not have to be brand-new; that repurposed does not mean second-rate.
It total, approximately 2.5 tons of metal was used to create the 5,310 medals that will be awarded throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Games this August and September, respectively. Though gold, silver, and bronze may be the metals most commonly thought of when speaking of Olympic hardware, in truth Olympic medals are largely made of copper. To briefly recap the composition of Olympic medals, a gold medal is only made up of 1% gold, the remainder being silver (93%) and copper (6%). Silver medals are nearly identical, composition-wise, being 93% silver and 7% copper, while bronze medals are almost entirely made of copper, with a bronze outer coating. 30% of the silver used in creating the Rio medals was sourced from recycled materials, including X-ray plates, car parts, and mirror surfaces, while the copper used in making each 500 gram medal was taken from scrap found in the Mint itself.
The medals for the Paralympic Games boast another feature unique from any before: each medal contains within its center a small piece of metal that makes a sound when shaken. The rattle emitted helps visually-impaired athletes to differentiate one medal from another, with gold making the loudest rattle, bronze the softest, and silver somewhere in between. Rio’s Olympic and Paralympic medals are also wider in the centers than on the edges, unlike any to come before. The fragment used inside the Paralympic medals was also sourced from scrap material in the Mint.
Additionally, the ribbons from which the (somewhat) gold, silver, and bronze amulets of accomplishment will hang from were created from recycled plastic bottles. The bottles were sourced from an organization of people that make a living collecting and reselling used plastic bottles. The wooden boxes that will house the victors’ medals were also sourced sustainably from indigenous Brazilian freijó wood, obtained from a forest with “certified sustainable” production. The podiums that athletes will stand on to receive awards were also built sustainably, and will be recycled into furniture when the Games come to an end in September.