Is a Gold Medal Really Gold? And What Is It Worth?

Mandatory Credit: Photo by JEROME FAVRE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (12804480g)Gold medalist Erin Jackson of the USA during the medal ceremony for the Women's Speed Skating 500m event at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games, Beijing, China, 14 February 2022.
JEROME FAVRE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock / JEROME FAVRE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

On April 6, 1896, American James Connolly became the first Olympic champion in 1,500 years when he won the triple jump at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece — the birthplace of the original.

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Connolly didn’t win a gold medal, though. According to Guinness World Records, there was no such thing in 1896. In fact, the first gold medals were awarded at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. Before that, gold was considered too expensive. Instead, he first-place winner received a silver medal, the second-place finisher got a bronze, and there wasn’t any prize for third place at all

So, were the early organizers right to opt for something cheaper than gold, and are today’s medals even made of the real thing? The answer is yes, partly, but that’s not the only reason they’re worth so much money. Read on to learn more.

Gold-Plated Medal

The term “gold medal” is a bit misleading. Between the time the first gold medal was awarded in St. Louis in 1904 through 1912, gold medals were made of solid gold. But that year during the Stockholm Games in Sweden, gold medals lost a whole lot of numismatic street cred when officials decided that from then on, they would be made mostly of silver — at least 92.5% — and gilded in 6 ounces of gold plating.

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Those proportions remain the same today.

Bronze medals are made from what The New York Times calls “red brass,” which is a combination of 95% copper and 5% zinc, both of which are base metals that are far less valuable than precious metals like silver and gold.

So, What’s a Medal Worth?

According to Newsweek, here’s how the three medals stack up at the weigh-ins:

  • Gold: 556 grams
  • Silver: 550 grams
  • Bronze: 450 grams

Second-place medals are made out of at least 925-1000 grade silver, which is going for $0.76 per gram as of Feb. 14. At 550 grams, that means a silver medal is worth $418.

Gold is trading at $59.75 per gram, so the 6-ounce gilding on the first-place medal is worth $358.50. Added to the $418 worth of silver underneath, an Olympic gold medal is worth $776.50.

Worth More Than Their Weight in Gold and Silver

According to The New York Times, it’s not unheard of for former Olympic champions to find themselves in financial straits so dire that they’re forced to sell the physical embodiment of their life’s grandest accomplishment — their beloved Olympic medals. Others auction off the symbol of their Olympic glory days for charity.

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Either way, ambitious collectors are always on the lookout for Olympic medals to add to their display cases. Medals are often auctioned, bought and sold just like baseball cards, comic books and sports memorabilia. That’s when you see that an Olympic medal’s value goes beyond the weight of its constituent metals — and the more significant the Olympic moment, the more money the medal is worth. Here are some fun facts about such medals:

  • The pound of copper that makes up 95% of a bronze medal isn’t worth five bucks at the current rate, but a bronze from the 1956 Winter Games in Italy sold for $3,750.
  • A medal from the 1984 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team fetched $83,188. The medal belonged to an unknown Olympian, but Patrick Ewing was a member of the ’84 squad — probably the best amateur team ever assembled — as well as the original 1992 Dream Team.
  • A silver medal from the original 1896 Olympic Games — when silver went to the winner and there was no gold medal — sold for $180,111.
  • A gold medal from the 1936 Olympics — one of four that Jesse Owens won while dunking on Hitler at his own Berlin Games — sold for $1.5 million.

If you’re not sure just how deep the branding power of athletic marketing runs, just look at the imagery on the gold, silver and bronze medals.

According to the NY Times, the IOC requires the world-famous Olympic rings to be emblazoned on the medals, along with the name of that year’s Games and the image of the Greek goddess of victory — who happened to go by the name Nike.

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.

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