Medals capture a bit of historyA total of 301 gold medals are up for grabs at the Athens Olympics. Engraved on the front of each medal is an image of Nike, goddess of victory, holding an olive leaf in her right hand.
According to legend, the olive leaf was given to the people of Athens by their goddess. Along with the laurel tree, the olive leaf is the chief symbol of the Olympic Games.
The torch for this year’s Games resembles an olive leaf, while the emblem looks like a wreath created from a branch.
The tradition of giving a medal to winners of the Olympic Games dates to 1896, when the first modern-day competition took place in Athens.
It was different from the present Games, however, in that the winner received a silver medal as well as a crown made from olive branches, while the second-place victor received a bronze medal and a crown of laurels.
It was during the third Olympic Games in St. Louis, in 1904, that gold, silver and bronze medals were first distributed among winners. The order of the three medals is derived from their relative value in Western society.
Up to the Stockholm Games of 1912, the gold medals were made from pure gold. From then on, however, silver accounted for 92.5 percent of the content of both gold and silver medals.
The only difference between the two was that the gold medal was coated with more than 6 grams (0.2 ounces) of pure gold.
The current medal is 60 millimeters (2.36 inches) in diameter and at least 3 millimeters thick. Each medal is engraved with the name of the sport in which it was won.
If the value of the medal were to be converted to money, the gold medal would be worth approximately $110, the silver medal about $66 and the bronze $16.
The medals now in use first appeared at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. They were designed by the Florentine artist Giuseppe Cassioli.
The front features the goddess Nike holding laurel branches in both hands, while the back contains an engraving of a unique design fashioned by the host country. The Winter Olympic medals may feature any design on either side.
During the ancient Olympics, instead of medals, the victor received a laurel crown on his head. The origin of this tradition can be found in Greek myths.
As the legend goes, the god Apollo was in love with the nymph Daphne. Uninterested in Apollo’s wooing, Daphne fled from him and prayed to the gods for help in escaping.
They responded, and she was turned into a laurel tree in mid-flight ― her arms turned to branches, her hair to leaves, and her feet were rooted into the ground.
Upon witnessing this, a tearful Apollo promised that from then on the laurel tree would be used to crown those who had won honorable games or soldiers who had seen victory on the battlefield while fighting for their country’s honor.
This legend continues to this day: The winners of the Olympic marathon wear a laurel crown on their heads.
by Hur Jin-seok
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