Why a gold medal?

(c) Reuters

Yay! Yesterday Marianne Vos won the first gold medal for the Netherlands these Olympics! The ‘golden girls’  from the 4×100 m relay swimming unfortunately didn’t prolong their title and had the silver medal to comfort them (which they are happy with… only it took a while to get from ‘losing gold’ to ‘winning silver’). Our archer has reached the final 16, Epke Zonderland has reached the finals in gymnastics and has a real chance of finally winning gold in gymnastics, Dex Elmont (judo) was so tired from his previous matches he lost the small final for the bronze medal. These are just several stories of Dutch successes or misfortunes during the first few days of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

10,960 athletes are competing in London and surroundings in 36 different sports, all trying to win that wondrous, special, GOLD medal. Silver is not enough for them, they have but one goal: GOLD. But why? Why is it not enough to be announced best of the world, to feel the glory when listening to the national anthem, to have the honour of being called Olympic champion? The modern Olympic Games were founded to “build a better world through sport”, based on the ideology of Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin (if you want to know more about this, the IOC has published a document in 2000).

The Ancient Olympics were different. I read an article today about the Pagan origins of the modern Olympic Games on about.com by Patti Wigington. It very clearly explained that the Ancient Olympics were first and foremost a religious festival. Competitors would honour Zeus by swearing an oath to him, offering and competing. The winner would be announced immediately after the event, so everybody could hear he had won, and red ribbons were tied around his head and hands (how symbolic, a colour of will and power). On the last day of the Games, all victors would be announced again and the kotinos (olive trea wreath) were placed on their heads. Some of these victors can still be named today! The organic material of the kotinos would not last forever, but the fame and glory of the athlete would.

Michael Phelps wins the gold medal (Athens 2004)

When the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 in Athens, the winner of an event was awarded a silver medal and an olive branch, whereas the runner-up would get a bronze medal and a laurel branch. Though the silver medal was new, the olive branch was somewhat similar to the prize at the ancient Olympic Games. Only in 1904 did the triad gold-silver-bronze become the standard.

So… why was there a need for medals and a gold medal in particular? Silver and bronze were enough, compared to the single winner in the ancient Olympic Games. Perhaps it has to do with the symbolism of the medal and the qualities of gold (though the Olympic medals are not made of solid gold anymore, they are >90% silver and copper). The medals are circular, to represent the world and possibly the everlasting glory of winning the Olympics. Gold is one of the least reactive solids: it will stay good for a very long time, unlike silver which turns black. It can therefore be a symbol of endurance and of everlasting glory. Gold can also symbolize the sun, or a sungod (though it was probably not intended as such). Alchemists strived to make gold out of ‘natural’ substances such as salt. It is believed to be a metaphor for their journey to wisdom. Perhaps the gold medalists have also completed their journey, only not per sé to wisdom, but to an amazing athletic achievement!

I love watching the Olympics, it’s on tv all day long and there is only a one hour difference, so we get to see most events live. It is spectacular, seeing what the human body is capable of! Though I agree we ought to honour these athletes because of their remarkable performances, I don’t know whether the medals are necessary. But on the other hand, it is also something the athletes can take with them, take home and remember their victory by. The medals are different every Olympic Game, so people will presumably collect different ones. I like the medals of the 2012 Olympics in London especially, because it looks so nice and has so many symbols on it 🙂 But though they are pretty and the athletes get a lasting object to symbolize their victory at the Olympics, I do not believe they are necessary. Any other object could have been chosen to give to the athletes. Nowadays however, the gold medal is the standard thing for athletes of Olympic sports to strive for, so it is appropriate that athletes get one if they win. I hope the Netherlands wins many more of them in the coming weeks!
This’ll hopefully spark some debate, I know it did here when my fiancée read it! What do you think about awarding medals to Olympic champions?

London 2012 Olympic gold medal

Design of the London 2012 Olympic gold medal


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