The History of Olympic Medals, Explained: What to Know for Tokyo

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games One Year To Go
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games One Year To Go
Getty Images

Athletes around the world have waited an extra year for their shot at the ultimate goal of a medal from the Tokyo Olympics. Decorated athletes like gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky will be looking to add to their hardware collection at the Tokyo Games, while some Team USA members will hope to take home their first medals.

Here is a look at the history of Olympic medals, what they are going to look like in Tokyo and what athletes do with the iconic hardware.

When were medals first awarded at the Olympics?

In the ancient Olympic Games, which can be dated back to 776 BCE, victors were adorned with olive wreaths rather than the medals we see in today’s competition.

The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 is where the tradition of awarding medals to winners began. The first-place winner was given a silver medal, second place was awarded a bronze medal and those who came in third left empty handed. The now-famous tradition of gold, silver and bronze medals began in 1904 at the St. Louis Olympics.


Data and Images: IOC Nina Lin and Andrew V. Pestano / NBC

The host city’s organizing committee is responsible for designing the awards. Regulations from the International Olympic Committee require that the design of each medal includes the following elements: Nike — the Greek goddess of victory — in front of the Panathinaikos Stadium, the official name of the respective Games (this summer’s will say “Games of the XXXII Olympiad Tokyo 2020”) and the Olympic five rings symbol.


What do the 2020 Tokyo Olympic medals look like?

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee headed the “Tokyo 2020 Medal Project” to collect small electronic devices, such as used cell phones, throughout Japan. The project marked the first time in Olympics history where a host country included its citizens in the production of medals and used recycled materials to make awards for the Games. 

A design competition was created for the public to submit ideas for how the awards should look. After more than 400 entries, a design was settled on that embodies the idea that athletes must ”strive for victory on a daily basis” in order to achieve glory.


The design of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic medals have the overall themes of “light” and “brilliance,” and will resemble stones that were once rough but have been polished to now shine. By collecting and reflecting patterns of light, the medals are meant to be a symbol of the energy of the athletes at the Olympics and their surrounding supporters. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic medal design is supposed to reflect diversity and represent a world in which people who work hard and compete are honored.

Why do Olympians bite their medals?

You may have noticed that Olympians don’t just show off their medals when they receive them — they actually … go for a taste?

The main reason why Olympians bite their medals is an obvious one: it’s a great pose for the cameras.

“It’s become an obsession with the photographers,” David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, told CNN in 2012. “I think they look at it as an iconic shot, as something that you can probably sell. I don’t think it’s something the athletes would probably do on their own.”

But where did this practice of Olympians biting their medals originate? Biting coins was once something that people did in order to see whether they were real gold or just a cheaper metal with gold plating. Because gold is softer and more malleable than other metals, a bite into authentic, solid gold would leave an indentation. However, this would not work with today’s Olympic medals considering that the first-place awards Olympians receive today are actually just 1.34% solid gold.


Do Olympians keep their medals?

Some Olympians choose to keep their medals and may display them in their homes, while others find unique places to hide the awards.

Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, told Anderson Cooper after the 2008 Beijing Olympics that he stores his gold medals wrapped in a T-shirt in a traveling makeup case. Skier Mikaela Shiffrin told NBC after the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics that she keeps her medals in her sock drawer. Soccer player Christie Pearce (formerly Rampone) admitted to hiding her medals in the last place she thought anyone would look: among her pots and pans.


How much are Olympic medals worth?

Some athletes have opted to sell their hardware. Before being awarded to an Olympian, medals aren’t worth all that much. The value of a melted-down gold medal from the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics was about $577, a silver was about $320 and a bronze was worth only $3.50.

It’s only after the medals are in an Olympian’s hands that their value skyrockets. Ukranian boxer Wladimir Klitschko sold his gold medal from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics for $1 million dollars, which he then donated to a children’s charity. American swimmer Anthony Ervin was also able to donate $17,101 to victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami after selling his gold medal from the 2000 Sydney Olympics on eBay.

Do American Olympians pay taxes on their medals?

American athletes who won Olympic medals used to be required to pay a “victory tax” — both on the value of their medal and on reward money given to them by the US Olympic Committee.

Now, thanks to former President Barack Obama, Olympic athletes are outside the grip of Uncle Sam. Obama signed a bill into law in 2016 that excludes athletes who bring home gold, silver or bronze medals for Team USA from having the IRS knock on their door. Unfortunately for high-profile athletes like Michael Phelps, the only exception is for those who earn more than $1 million a year.


Olympic Medals Adjusted Per Athlete

Since the 1896 games in Athens, the number of countries and athletes participating in the Olympics has ballooned in size lowering the number of medals per athlete for each country.

Source: International Society of Olympic Historians; Olympedia; International Olympic Committee Credit: Andrew Williams/NBC