Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Bethanie. Bethanie Wonders, “What are Olympic medals made out of?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Bethanie!
Have you ever seen someone do something so spectacular that it completely changes the way things are done from that point forward? When that happens, you may hear people say that a person “broke the mold." What does that mean?
In manufacturing, many things are made with molds. Molds are often metal shells that are filled with materials that then cool into a particular form or shape. Molds are used so that products can be made in the exact same way over and over again.
When someone breaks the mold, we recognize that they have done something differently than it has ever been done before. We often talk about athletes breaking the mold when they set new world records that people thought would never be broken.
You may hear the phrase “break the mold" often at the Olympics. During each Olympic Games, new world records are often set by athletes that train and then perform in ways that no one has ever seen before. When they do this, they break the mold and earn gold, silver, and bronze medals for their efforts.
Of course, those medals they win? Those are made with molds. Have you ever WONDERed exactly what goes into those molds to produce those shiny Olympic medals?
The very first Olympians won wreaths of olive leaves for their victories. Modern-day Olympians, however, win medals. The first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 awarded silver medals to first place (because silver was more valuable than gold at the time) and copper medals to second place.
Today, Olympic winners get gold medals, while second- and third-place finishers get silver and bronze medals, respectively. But are those medals solid metal? Is a gold medal 100% gold? Not quite…
The design, size, and composition of Olympic medals vary between Olympic Games. The organizing committee of the host nation makes the final decisions with some loose guidelines to follow.
For example, all Olympic medals must be at least three millimeters thick and at least 60 millimeters in diameter. You might be surprised to learn, though, that both gold and silver medals are made of 92.5% silver (the rest is usually copper). Gold medals, however, must also be plated with at least six grams of gold. Bronze medals are made with bronze, which is a combination of copper and another metal, such as tin or zinc.
So what is a gold medal worth? The gold medals awarded at the 2012 Olympic Games in London were the heaviest yet, weighing about 400 grams each. Their estimated value was over $600 each, with about half of that value coming from the six grams of gold and the other half coming from the sterling silver in the medal.