Sport was such an important social and political activity in ancient Greece – with representatives from kingdoms and city states participating in a cycle of four sporting festivals, known as the Panhellenic Games – each one honouring a Greek God.
|Ruins of the Temple of Zeus, Olympia|
The Olympics is the oldest of such festivals held for the first time in 776BC in honour of the Greek god Zeus at his sanctuary in Olympia.
The principal events were chariot and horseracing, the Pentathlon (running, wrestling, long-jump, javelin and discus), separate running, wrestling events and also a footrace in full armour.
Ancient coins record some of these events as well as the ‘trophies’ awarded to the winners – such as laurel wreaths, olive garlands and amphorae of the finest olive oil.
|Ancient amphorae designed for marine transport|
taken from shipwrecks of the Bronze Age
Much as now, the home towns showered their sporting heroes with gifts and honoured them for their victorious results.
For the early modern Olympic Games in 1896 successful competitors were given a silver medal and an olive branch, while runners up received a laurel branch and a copper or bronze medal. In 1900 most winners received cups or trophies instead of medals.
The custom of the sequence of gold, silver and bronze for the first three places dates from the 1904 Summer Olympics in St Louis, Missouri, USA and was applied retroactively for the 1896 and 1900 Games.
|Cassiterite - the main ore of tin|
Medals are not the only awards given to competitors; every athlete placed first to eighth receives a diploma – while in Lausanne at the IOC’s museum the names of all medal winners are written onto a wall.
Rock to dust to Olympic Medals starts at the ‘ginormous’ Kennecott mine in Bingham Valley, Utah that can be seen from space with a tiny extra amount of earth from Rio Tinto’s Mongolian mine;
|Church and pub at Zennor,|
with the sign of the Tinners' Arms
In all, eight tonnes of gold, silver and copper, with a pinch of zinc from Australia and a touch of tin from Cornwall will be extracted, refined, pummelled, hammered and ultimately designed into gold, silver and bronze medals.
4,700 medals will be presented during a total of 302 victory ceremonies at the Olympics and Paralympic Games.
This year’s Olympic medals are among the heaviest ever to be created, each one measuring 3.25 inches (8.25 cms) in diameter and weighing more than 14 oz (400 gms) ...
|Gold Medal 2012 (front)|
The gold medal is predominantly silver that has been plated with gold, the silver medal is mainly silver with some copper, while the bronze medal is made from copper, tin and zinc.
The IOC dictates the physical properties of the medals and has the final decision about the finished design - this has been created by the Decorative Arts team of the Royal Mint at Llantrisant, South Wales.
The circular form is a metaphor for the world. The front of the medal always depicts the same imagery at the Summer Games: the Greek Goddess of Victory, Nike, stepping out from the Parthenon to arrive in the host city.
The 2012 design for the reverse features five symbolic elements:
· an amphitheatre representing ancient Greece
· an architectural emblem as a metaphor for modern life
· radiating lines of energy representing the athletes’ efforts
· the River Thames in the background is a symbol for London, with a fluttering baroque ribbon adding a sense of celebration
· the square draws the whole together emphasising its focus on the centre ... reinforcing the sense of ‘place’ as in a map inset.
So these medals – the weight of a can of baked beans! – have been on a long journey too ... rock to dust, metals extracted, refined, transported as ingots, button-sized pieces ... melted down again, moulded into blank discs ...
|Dowlais Ironworks, South Wales|
by George Childs (1840)
... which will have 22 more processing stages, including ten man-hours of work, before becoming an Olympic medal ... then to hang around the necks of the 2012 achieving Olympians ...
Those early prizes for the winners at the Ancient Olympic Games were a wild-olive tree branch intertwined to form a circle or a horseshoe, laurel wreaths, olive garlands and amphorae of the finest olive oil ...
|The olive wreath, also known as|
Kotinos, the prize for the winner
of the ancient Olympic Games
... have now evolved in 2012 into these magnificent medals for the three winners – Gold, Silver and Bronze ... congratulations to all athletes on their successful hard won achievements.
Dear Mr Postman ... I had a lovely time in Scotland, learnt a lot, relaxed watching lots of Olympics and met up with a wonderful family from times past ... all of which was an absolutely pleasure ... the 4.00 am start on Tuesday didn’t thrill me – but then I had nearly a whole day when I arrived at this very historically interesting area – more to follow.
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