When I first saw a periodic table of the elements, I observed that the three Olympic medals – gold, silver and copper, the largest component of bronze – were the three group 11 elements. The order of these elements from lightest to heaviest – copper (Cu), then silver (Ag), then gold (Au) – follow the order of the medals in ascending value. (In 1994, a fourth group 11 element was discovered. With a half-life of up to 126 seconds for its most stable known isotope, it’s safe to assume that no one will ever play for a roentgenium medal.)
The gold-sliver-bronze medal arrangement was first used in the third Olympic Games in 1904. In the inaugural 1896 Olympics in Athens, the winner was given a silver medal and an olive branch, while the runner-up earned a bronze medal. The 1900 Olympics in Paris were part of the World’s Fair, and competitions were not tightly scheduled and regulated. Most winners of those competitions were given trophies instead of medals.
For the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games, the medals will meet the standard International Olympic Committee (IOC) specifications. The silver medal will be composed of 99.9% pure silver. The gold medal, believe it or not, is nowhere near pure gold. In fact, 6 grams of gold are plated onto a silver medal. The bronze medal contains 90% copper, with zinc to finish. The PyeongChang 2018 medals weigh 493 grams (bronze medal), 580 grams (silver medal) and 586 grams (gold medal). At today’s rate (all U.S. dollars) of approximately $42.70/g for gold, $0.56/g for silver, $0.007/g for copper and $0.003/g for zinc, the metal in a gold medal is worth $580; a silver medal is worth $325; and a bronze medal is barely worth $3.25. (If the Olympic gold medal was actually made of pure gold, the value of the metal would be on the order of $25,000.) The medals to be awarded in PyeongChang will be the heaviest Olympic medals ever; the previous record was at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, with a gold medal weighing 576 grams.
So what is special about group 11 elements, to be used as Olympic medals? An obvious point is that bronze, silver and gold have long been considered precious metals, even millennia before the modern Olympics. Gold has long been held as the most precious of metals; its shiny yellow appearance is quite desirable, and it is relatively rare, so the economics of supply and demand have made the metal quite valuable for millennia. Let’s not forget that the mythical philosopher’s stone was expected to turn common medals such as iron, nickel and zinc into gold.
Its chemistry is also very important – gold is one of the least reactive metals, so it manages to maintain its lustre in everyday conditions. It is so unreactive that the potent mixture of acids needed to dissolve it (concentrated nitric acid and concentrated hydrochloric acid in a 1:3 ratio) is known as aqua regia – “royal water”. The reaction of gold with oxygen to form gold oxide is not thermodynamically favoured. The same is true for silver, although it can be dissolved with less dramatic measures. Pure copper can react slowly with oxygen to form copper oxide, but that reaction does not occur in ambient conditions. This does not mean that the oxides of gold, silver or copper do not exist or cannot be stable; in particular, silver oxide is used in some batteries, and is made by reacting silver nitrate with sodium hydroxide. On the other hand, iron oxides are very easily made by reaction iron metal with oxygen (this is the rust that we see on our cars).
Since gold, silver and copper do not corrode, they are ideal for making long-lasting currency. These metals can be stretched into thin sheets, cut into durable pieces to make round discs, and then struck to make coins. Pure gold is quite soft, so widely-used coins are mixed with other metals to make them more durable. (Besides, governments do not want the value of the gold in the coin to be worth significantly more than the face value of the coin.) The scarcity of gold also made it a secure mineral for commerce; it was more difficult for unauthorized groups to acquire the raw material needed to make forgeries.
Medals were not awarded in the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece; instead, an olive branch was awarded to the winners, as it was felt that the competitions should be for honour, not for material gain. When the modern Games were founded at the end of the 19th century, medals (and sometimes trophies) were thought to be appropriate prizes for winners of elite amateur competitions. In that era, a proud amateur athlete played sport for honour, while professionalism was looked down upon, which would have made the awarding of official prize money at the Olympics quite inappropriate. (As an interesting side note – chess nearly became an event at the 1924 Paris Olympics. The main sticking point was that leaders of the chess world could not distinguish between amateur and professional players. In response, the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or FIDE, was formed and the first chess Olympiad was held in Paris that Summer.)
Even today, Olympic winners receive no official prize money. That said, millionaire athletes from play high-profile sports still strive to win one of these precious Olympic medals for their countries. Other elite athletes, those who have never been paid a single copper penny to play their sport of choice, will give their everything in the hope of capturing a sample of metal that will maintain of incalculable value to them.
[Note: This article was originally published in August 2012, during the London Olympics, and updated in February 2014 for the Sochi Olympics. You see the pattern. An update of this article is tentatively scheduled for July 24, 2020, when the World’s athletes will gather in Tokyo.]
[Cover picture from the International Olympic Committee webpage]