What to Know About the History of Winter Olympic Medals

Getty Images

Thousands of athletes competing in Beijing, all in pursuit of an elusive gold medal. Household names like Shaun White and Mikaela Shiffrin are hoping to add to their collection and defend their gold medals. Meanwhile, the magic of the Olympics means there’s bound to be inspiring comebacks and breakout stars who emerge atop the podium. 

Olympic medals are one of the many ways host cities distinguish themselves, often adorned with culturally and historically-significant elements. The Beijing medals, released this past October, are no different. 

Here is a look at the history of Olympic medals, what the Beijing committee has in store for the upcoming Olympic medals and where the iconic hardware ends up down the road. 

What will the Beijing 2022 medals look like?

The medals will be named “Tong Xin,” which means “together as one” in Chinese. The design, based on Chinese ancient jade concentric circle pendants, will consist of five rings, inspired by the Olympic rings. The five rings represent the unifying spirit of the Olympics. 

The center ring will feature the Olympic logo, followed by a different element in each surrounding ring. In the ring closest to the centerpiece is the inscription “XXIV Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.” The next two rings are engraved with snow and cloud patterns and the outermost ring is empty.

The 2022 medals are designed to resemble the jaid-inlaid medals of the 2008 Summer Olympics, a reminder that Beijing is the first “Dual Olympic City” to host both the Summer and Winter Games. Both medals also incorporate red – one of the country’s national colors, believed to bring good luck in the new year – in their medal ribbons. 


Every Olympic Medal Ever Made

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

Who designs the Olympic medals?

Olympic medals are designed by the host city’s committee, typically featuring historical and cultural components specific to that city. 

The 2022 design team was led by chief designer Hang Hai, who also contributed to the 2008 Summer Olympic medals. 

How much are Olympic medals worth?

Everything comes with a price and Olympic medals are no exception. 

Invaluable to many, CNBC recently calculated the value of each Olympic medal and it’s probably much lower than you’d expect. A gold medal from the Tokyo Olympics is estimated at $820 — $265 more expensive than the first-place prize in PyeongChang.

Where do athletes store their Olympic medals?

Olympians store their medals everywhere from bank vaults to underneath their pillows. Meanwhile, others opt to auction off their medals down the road for big money.

Shiffrin told NBC that she stores her medals in her sock drawer. Meanwhile, Christie Pearce (formerly Rampone) stashes her three Olympic medals in pots and pans throughout her kitchen. And if you’re Michael Phelps and have a record 28 Olympic medals, one or two of them might get lost in the shuffle. 

Every once in a while, medals won under historic circumstances hit the open market. In 2013, one of Jesse Owens’ iconic Berlin gold medals won in front of Adolf Hitler was sold for a record $1.47 million. In some cases the proceeds of the sale have gone to fund personal health or humanitarian causes, such as the case of Ukrainian boxer Wladimir Klitschko, who sold his 1996 Olympic gold medal for $1 million to put toward supporting orphans in Ukraine. 

What happens if a medal is stolen or lost?

There are no shortage of wild stories that involve mishaps and misfortunes of Olympic medals. Stolen in a home burglary? Check. Lost in a house fire? Tragically, it happened. Accidentally sent it to the dry cleaners? Just ask Shaun White. Luckily for these athletes, they were eventually able to recover their Olympic prize.

This might come as a surprise to some, but this is actually a relatively common occurrence. In fact, the IOC estimates that they receive at least one or two requests for replica medals each Olympics. 


When an Olympic medal is lost or stolen, an investigation is typically launched to try to locate the missing item. However, if that’s unsuccessful, athletes can pay to have a medal reproduced for anywhere between $500 and $1200. But there’s a catch: Replacement medals are inscribed with the word “replica” in the corner. 

Up through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, U.S. athletes had the assurance of Liberty Mutual insurance to cover the medal replacement cost.

Who started the tradition of biting medals?

One of sports’ most iconic photo ops likely began a century and a half ago as a way of authenticating real gold during the California Gold Rush. Gold is a softer, more malleable metal that bends slightly under stress, or in this case bite marks. 

However, for Olympians – and photographers –  it’s all about the tradition. Pure-gold medals haven’t been awarded at the Olympics since 1912, but that doesn’t stop hundreds of medalists from posing with their prize between their teeth every Olympics. 

In rare cases, this silly tradition backfires. In 2010, German luger David Moeller bit into his silver medal, only to discover a chipped tooth later that night. 

Who are the most decorated Winter Olympians?

Three athletes – all from Norway – have won 10 or more Winter Olympic medals. 

Skier Marit Bjørgen, sometimes known as The Iron Lady, is the most decorated Winter Olympian with 15 medals to her name. Close behind her is fellow countryman Ole Bjørndalen, who won 13 Olympic medals in men’s biathlon from 1994 to 2014. Rounding out the Norwegian trio is Bjørn Dæhlie, who won 12 medals in men’s skiing. All three competitors are also tied for the most gold medals at eight.