Scraponomics Episode 145: Are Olympic Medals Really Made out of Gold, Silver, and Bronze?

Aug 25, 2016, 08:48 PM

“Each of us has a fire in our heart for something. It’s our goal in life to find it and keep it lit.” — Mary Lou Retton, Gold medal winner in gymnastics in the 1984 Summer Olympics

It’s the dream of countless athletes — to stand at a podium at the Olympics and be presented with a medal for a level of skill so few of us will ever attain. We know the medals athletes are presented with are gold, silver, and bronze. But what are they really made of?

Bronze is an alloy made from copper, about 12% tin, and usually contains a small percentage of other metals in it, like zinc. The Olympic bronze medal is no different, and doesn’t cost much to make, given that bronze as a commodity isn’t nearly as valuable as silver or gold. From a commodity standpoint, the bronze medal is only worth a few dollars.

The Olympic silver medal is 100% silver, and is worth a little over $300. So far so good.

The Olympic gold medal is where things get a little tricky. It turns out the gold medals are over 98% silver, with only a little over 1% (or about 6 grams) of a gold plating.

When you think about it, though, it makes sense. With the gold plating method, the gold medals are currently worth around $500. If they were made out of solid gold, it would cost over $20,000 to make each one. Especially if you think about how many gold medals are awarded during the Olympic games, that would quite costly!

Here’s the thing. Value can be a weird concept. Things are worth whatever people are willing to pay for them. For these athletes, the medals mean far more than their values as commodities. They represent the time, blood, sweat, and tears the athletes have put in to perfecting their crafts.

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