Note: This article is courtesy of Iris.xyz
By Frank Holmes
Every child knows Olympic gold medals are for first place, silver for second and bronze for third. But where does this tradition come from?
Like most everything else relating to the Olympics, we can trace the tradition back to the ancient Greeks, who assigned metals (not medals) to different Ages of Man. First among them was the Golden Age, characterized as a peaceful time when humans and gods lived in harmony and food was plentiful. The Greeks believed this to be the pinnacle of our existence, after which it all went downhill. Following that golden period came the Silver Age, when childhood lasted 100 years. Then, the Bronze Age, a time of violence and destruction among warring tribes.
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The Greeks weren’t alone in their reverence of gold, of course. It fascinates me that nearly every ancient people, no matter the continent or region, imbued the precious metal with the same degree of sacredness and purity. One of the earliest known metals, gold was valued for its resemblance to the sun, itself worshipped as a powerful deity in many cultures. The ancient Incans, in fact, referred to gold as “sweat of the sun.” When you held a gold nugget, it was believed, you held a piece of the gods themselves.
More or less.
Alas, today’s Olympic gold medals contain only a small trace of the yellow metal. According to Kitco News, they’re about 95 percent silver and 1.2 percent gold, making them worth nearly $570 at current prices. (Of course, the real value is much higher. A gold medal earned by an obscure athlete can go for $10,000 at auction, and the price goes up from there. Jesse Owens’ gold medal, awarded during the 1936 Berlin Games, sold for $1.47 million in 2013.) The last (and only) time medals were 100 percent pure was during the 1912 games in Stockholm.