What Are Olympic Medals Made Of?

Usain Bolt
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The top three finishers of each Olympic competition are awarded the gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively. While the name seems to imply it, Olympic gold medals are not 100 percent gold. At one time the prize given to the first-place finisher in each competition was solid gold, but now Olympic gold medals are made mostly from silver. For that matter, the second-place silver medals aren't always 100 percent silver either, though they do contain the same amount of silver as the gold medal. As for the third-place bronze medal, it is made of exactly what its name claims.

Composition

The specific composition and design of Olympic medals is determined by the host city's organizing committee. However, minimum standards must be maintained:

  • Gold and silver medals are at least 92.5 percent silver.
  • Gold medals must be plated with at least 6 grams of gold.
  • All Olympic medals must be at least 3 mm thick and at least 60 mm in diameter.
  • Bronze medals are bronze, an alloy of copper and usually tin.

The silver medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics had a purity of 99.9 percent, according to Olympic.org. A gold medal was a silver medal plated with 6 grams of gold, while the bronze as made of an alloy of 90 percent copper and 10 percent zinc.

Other Awards

Gold, silver, and bronze medals have not always been awarded. In the original Greek games, a wreath of olive leaves taken from a tree near the temple of Zeus was placed on the victor's head.

When the first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896, the first-place winners were awarded silver medals, since silver was more sought-after at the time. The runners-up got bronze medals. The winners at the 1900 Paris Olympics received trophies or cups instead of medals.

The custom of awarding gold, silver, and bronze medals started at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. The last Olympic gold medal that was made from solid gold was awarded in 1912 in Stockholm. After that year, the gold medals have been gilded silver rather than solid gold.

Eco-Friendly Metals

The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics featured eco-friendly metals with the gold free of mercury contamination. Mercury and gold are notoriously difficult elements to separate. The sterling silver used for the silver medals was partly recycled (about 30 percent by mass.) Part of the copper used to make the bronze for the bronze medals was recycled as well.

Some Solid Gold Medals

Although the Olympic gold medal is more silver than gold, there are gold medals that are solid gold, such as the Congressional Gold Medal and Nobel Prize Medal. Before 1980 the Nobel Prize medal was made from 23-carat gold. Newer Nobel Prize medals are 18-carat green gold plated with 24-carat gold.