The establishment of the modern Olympic Games was the obsession of Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, a French nobleman, historian and teacher who after years of petitioning, finally saw his dream of re-staging the ancient international sporting event realized in 1896 in Athens, Greece.
However it wasn’t until the third modern Olympiad in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904 that the first Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were awarded to first, second and third place athletes; previous winners were crowned with a wreath of Laurel leaves and were presented with a Silver medal, while Winter Olympic medals began with the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France in 1924.
The metals were selected to represent the three ages of human civilization in ancient Greek mythology; Gold representing the Golden Age when humanity lived among the Gods, Silver denoting the Silver Age when our young lived for 100 years, and Bronze representing the Bronze Age which heralded the Hellenic Age of Heroes.
Olympic medals have been sought after by collectors ever since, not only as historic rewards for athletic excellence, but as prized commodities in their own right, in part based on the content of their precious metals, but also as iconic symbols of our unquenchable thirst for rare and valuable swag.
Here then is our list of the top 10 most valuable gold medals in Olympic history.
10. The original Olympic Games
The ancient Greek Olympians received a ceremonial wreath of either Olive or Laurel leaves as a crown of victory (there is some dispute as to which was more common), which obviously doesn’t hold the Trump-like appeal or value of Gold, Silver or Bronze. However, ask any historian, archeologist or sports fan about the significance and worth of somehow unearthing a petrified Laurel leaf from Pompeii or Greece, complete with a stone tablet authenticating its origins as an original Olympic victor’s crown, and they would tell you breathlessly that it would be automatically priceless.
Since the chances of finding such a fragile and rare object appears to be zero, however, we’ll probably never know, which is why despite its potential worth, the ancient crown of leaves comes in at number ten.
9. 1924 Winter Olympics
Naturally, the Gold medals from the very first Winter Olympiad in Chamonix, France would make our list, as their historic value is indisputable. While not especially rare, Olympic collectors highly covet these medals simply on the strength of their being the first of their kind.
8. 1904 Summer Olympic Games
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has dictated that Olympic Gold medals must contain at least 92.5% Silver, 6.1% Copper and at least 1.34% Gold; the last Olympic Games in which Gold medals were made entirely of Gold was in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden.
By those parameters, obviously the larger the actual size of the medal, the more precious metals it will contain. For the last several decades, this has meant that Winter Olympic medals are more valuable than Summer medals because they have generally been somewhat larger than their sun-splashed counterparts.
However, our list is drawn not only from the size and weight of the medals, but also their historical significance and rarity. Therefore number 9 on our list goes to the Gold medals from the 1904 Olympiad in St. Louis, Missouri. As the first medals awarded at the modern Olympic Games, though not particularly rare, their historic value speaks for themselves.
7. The 1936 Summer and Winter Games
While the moral and ethical debates surrounding Adolf Hitler’s success in securing these games for Germany will probably continue forever, there is no questioning the historical value of these medals as representative of an incredibly dark period in human history, and as such they are among the most sought after by collectors of Olympic memorabilia.
Adding to their interest, the medals from the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympiad weigh in at 11.4 ounces, making them among the heftiest in Winter Olympic history.
6. 2010 Winter Olympics
After becoming the only host country in Olympic history to fail to earn a Gold medal in both its 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and their Winter Games in Calgary in 1988, there was enormous pressure on the Crazy Canucks to make their third time a charm, and they were taking no chances on any further humiliations.
Just prior to the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, the Canadian government uncharacteristically set an ambitious target for the usually modest nation of garnering more total medals at their 2010 Vancouver Olympiad than any other country, through their ‘Own the Podium’ project, which actually began at the Turin Olympiad.
Originally much maligned by both domestic and international critics, the policy secured more funding for training and development of Canadian athletes over the next four years than had ever before been made available, and while the sneers and mockery of OTP continued throughout the Vancouver Games, Canadian athletes wound up having the last laugh.
While they fell short of their primary goal of more total medals than any other nation (with 26 total, Canada was third behind Germany with 30 and the U.S. with 37), they did manage to earn a record 14 Gold medals, one more than the previous record holder, Russia and twice as many as Canadian athletes had ever previously won at any Winter Games.
Add to that the fact that at between 17.6 to 20.3 ounces, these bad boy medals are currently the largest and heaviest ever awarded, their historical significance will likely remain legendary, and not only in Canada, eh.
5. 1912 Summer Olympics
As the last Olympiad to feature medals made from solid gold, the 1912 Games in Stockholm, Sweden hold a unique place in Olympic history. At that time, medals were considerably smaller than they are today, measuring under 1.5 inches in diameter and weighing less than an ounce (by comparison, more modern medals average about 3.5 inches in diameter and weigh between 9 and 20 ounces).
Despite their being made from solid gold however, the petite size of the Stockholm Gold medals means they are only worth about $1,075, though their historic value is incalculable.
4. 2002 Winter Olympics
While not especially rare, the Salt Lake City Gold medals do hold the distinction of being the first in Olympic history to weigh in at over one pound (20 ounces), and notwithstanding their unique place in Olympic lore, by today’s gold price alone, they are worth over $25,000 each.
3. 2012 Summer Olympics
At between 13.2 and 14.1 ounces, the Gold medals awarded in London are currently the largest and heaviest of any in the history of the Summer Games, and are worth over $52,000 apiece on today’s gold market.
2. 1936 Jesse Owens Gold medal
On December 8, 2013 the sole surviving of the 4 Gold medals won by U.S. Track and Field legend Jesse Owens at the infamous Berlin Games of 1936, was sold via an online auction.
The unmarked medal was previously owned by the third wife of American entertainer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, a close personal friend of Owens, who was given the medal as a gift in gratitude for Robinson’s support after Owens declared bankruptcy in 1939.
While four replacement Gold medals were ceremoniously presented to Owens in 1976 (they currently reside in his Alma Mater of Ohio State University), no one including Owens’ own family have any idea what became of the other three original medals; Owens won Gold in the 100m, 200m, 400m relay and the Long Jump, becoming the first athlete in Olympic history to win four Golds in one Olympiad, setting three World records and matching or breaking nine Olympic records in the process; a simply stunning achievement of incredible athletic ability.
The historic value of the medal doesn’t stop there, however, as Owens’ spectacular results were not only a stinging rebuke of Hitler’s ludicrous ‘Aryan Supremacy’ ideology, hoisting a gigantic middle finger to the horrors and bigotry of Fascist Nazism, but more importantly was a powerful demonstration of the potential held by Black Americans, who at that time were still largely considered as ‘inferior’ in their own country.
The winning bid was put forward by American billionaire Ron Burkle, who forked out $1.46 million for this precious sliver of world history.
1. 2014 Winter Olympics
While not the largest or heaviest Winter medals (at 3.9 inches in diameter and weighing between 16.2 and 18.7 ounces), the Gold medals to be awarded at this year’s Winter Olympiad are definitely meaty, but that isn’t what makes them top our list.
With the introduction of Jade in the Gold medals handed out in Beijing, China in 2008, Olympic medal production entered a new phase, which the Russians seem poised to win, at least for now.
Some fortunate Olympic champions will receive Gold medals that include fragments of a meteorite that struck the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013. Those athletes who win their events on the one year anniversary of the impact will receive these exceptionally unique medals.
However, that isn’t the only reason we’ve awarded Sochi 2014 number one status, as these Games are unfortunately shaping up to be among the most harrowing in Olympic history.
As tensions and fears over mounting security concerns continue to escalate, it’s anyone’s guess as to how these Games may unfold, making many athletes, officials and spectators uneasy about whether Sochi may herald an entirely new and unpleasant reality for the event, that of domestic or international terrorism.
Let’s hope the Sochi 2014 medals will remain iconic for all the right reasons.
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