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Going for the Gold: Collecting Olympic Prize and Participant Medals

by Tom Carrier (07/30/12).

The Prize Medals awarded at the 2012 London Olympic Games feature Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, on one side and British artist David Watkins' interpretation of the River Thames on the reverse. If you plan on collecting a medal from these Olympic games, it is going to cost you a pretty penny.

Much fuss is rightly made over the extraordinary accomplishments of Olympic athletes. The long, sometimes monotonous years of daily training—usually away from family and friends and even for important events—they have to put in is impressive. They exhibit so much drive, so much dedication with a goal of performing a feat of genuine skill that very few can ever attain. And, hopefully, be awarded for it with a show of appreciation from millions around the world, all encompassed by the public awarding of a fanciful disk of metal and ribbon.

An Olympic Prize Medal! It has enormous sentimental and personal value to be sure, but let’s begin with its more intrinsic value and ask, what is an Olympic medal made of?

First, we need to be quite clear here. There are two different categories of Olympic medals for collectors: the Prize Medal and the Participant Medal. The Prize Medal is awarded only to the deserving athletes who finished in the top three in their events. These medals are cast in bronze, silver and gold, are held up by ribbons and are rather large and heavy.

The Participant Medal is a smaller, commemorative die-cast piece, mostly of bronze, given to all who participated in the Games, either as an athlete, judge or staff. These Olympic medals are available in higher quantities and are quite collectible in their own right. It is the Prize Medal that we’ll concentrate on here for value and collectability.

To begin with, the 2012 bronze medal of the London Summer Olympic Games, according to news reports and the International Olympics Committee, is mostly copper, with 2.5 percent zinc and 0.5 percent tin. At just a little under a pound, the value of the metal in the medal at current market rates is about $5.

These are the Prize Medals awarded during the 1996 Olympics, held in Atlanta.

The silver medal is mostly made of copper and must include no less than 550 grams of silver—or about 1 percent—gilded over nearly one pound of underlying copper. At current silver prices, the total value of the Olympics silver medal is about $500.

Curiously, the gold medal is actually vermeil or gold gilded over silver. It contains 550 grams of silver over a copper base, but covered or “gilded” with six grams of 24k gold. The market value of the gold and silver is about $800.

All of the medal contents and sizes are strictly regulated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Even the actual designs must be approved by the IOC. What hasn’t been commonly known is that the three-tier medal prizes of bronze, silver and gold were first awarded in the 1904 St. Louis Games, according to the Wikipedia entry on the subject. The games of 1896 awarded the winners of events a silver medal and an olive wreath, while the runner-up received a bronze medal and a laurel wreath. In 1900 the winners received cups or trophies.

Altogether, according to Statistics Brain, there have been a total of 14,902 total Prize Medals awarded since 1904, including both Summer and Winter Games (5,008 gold, 4,862 silver, 5,032 bronze). This tally does not including the 2012 Summer Games, which will award approximately 4,500 medals, bringing the total to about 19,402 medals overall. These are important numbers to collectors, as it shows the rarity of the total Prize Medal pool.

Not as many as you would think.

A recently discovered Participation Medal from the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Games—what is believed to be the finest example of this medal known—is currently up for auction at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.

Because only 12 countries and 651 athletes attended the St, Louis Games, this is the rarest of all Olympic Participation Medals. The current bid for this medal is $9,000 (as of 3 p.m., July 31, 2012).

So, with a pool of only about 20,000 total Prize Medals since 1896—not including the trophies in 1900—what are the odds of owning any of the Olympic medals? What are their auction values? To find out, I checked WorthPoint’s Worthopedia to get an idea.

First medal I found was a 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games silver medal awarded for ice hockey to a member of the team from the Soviet Union. Combined with the participation medal (remember, a commemorative given to all participants, judges and staff at every Olympics and worth about $30-$50), they sold for $10,755.

Another medal I found was a gold medal awarded to hockey player Mark Wells, a member of the U.S. team that won an improbable victory against the highly favored Soviet team in the semifinals the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y. Known as the “Miracle on Ice,” the victory led to a great outpouring of national pride. It still warms most of our cockles (at least those of us for remember it). Wells’ gold medal sold at auction in 2010 for $310,700.

A silver medal from 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games awarded to a player from the Soviet Union ice hockey team.

The gold medal awarded to hockey player Mark Wells, a member of the 1980 U.S. “Miracle on Ice” team.

And these were the only examples of Olympic Prize Medals listed in the massive WorthPoint auction records. As you can see, the difference between the intrinsic value of the Prize Medal and its historic value is rather significant, as it should be.

Even if the Prize Medals are a bit out of reach for the casual collector, the Participant Medals are just as highly coveted as their numbers were rather limited and controlled by the IOC. Their values are less than a few hundred dollars for the early ones to less than $100 for the more current Games. A very affordable alternative to the Prize Medals for sure.

During these 2012 Summer Games, we naturally love to see the skill being demonstrated by highly talented athletes. As collectors, we should also be looking at the collectability of all Olympic memorabilia. After all, their “thrill of victory” is also a big part of our own personal and national history, too.

Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or the study of flags.


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2 Responses to “Going for the Gold: Collecting Olympic Prize and Participant Medals”

  1. Anne Studholme says:

    Very interesting article, thank you. There is more to the story of the sale of Wells’ medal, that we collectors should be aware of and ponder.

    Mark Wells sold the medal to pay medical bills for a disabling spinal disease. Wells sold his medal for about $28,000 to a buyer or buyers who then re-sold the medal at auction, with a starting bid of $25,000 and an ending bid of $310,700. Do you think they took advantage of Wells? Do you think the ultimate buyer could maybe have found a better use for his money than to possess Wells’ medal while Wells lives in poverty? Or do you think, hey, that’s life, those are the breaks, he had the glory and if he’s now impoverished, well, good thing there’s someone out there he can sell his medal to? Do you think the potential appreciation in value of the historic medal was “baked” into the price Wells got when he sold? Does the fact his desperate financial and medical straits were also “baked” into that sale price taint the entire series of transactions?

    To the original buyer, Wells wrote:

    “The gold medal symbolizes my personal accomplishments and our team’s accomplishments being reached. As one of only 20 players to receive this gold medal, it has held a special place in my heart since February of 1980. When I decided recently to offer it out . . . I also decided until the day I give it up, it will be worn. Therefore, I have slept with this medal for the past two weeks now in my home . . . I hope you will cherish this medal as I have.”

    From the Daily News article, November 25, 2010, one of many, many reports online of what happened to Wells:

    Thursday, November 25, 2010

    “His baby boy is healthy and his painkillers are helping and that makes this a pretty good day in the difficult life of Mark Wells. He makes his way stiffly along the outside of the sideboards at the Westchester Skating Academy in Elmsford, N.Y., the icy air bracing against his face.

    . . . Wells keeps walking and passes a procession of gear-toting kids and mothers and fathers, none of them aware that the blocky, brown-haired man who had just gone by was once a miracle worker, a stout, swift-skating centerman, a kid from Bowling Green who was the 20th and last player selected by Herb Brooks for the team that would beat the Soviets and win the gold medal in Lake Placid 30 years ago.

    Nor do they know anything of the full, pain-filled arc of Mark Wells’ story, of his five back surgeries and hundreds of thousands in medical bills, or his thoughts of suicide, or of the desperate, destitute straits that moved him to do the unthinkable and sell his 1980 Olympic gold medal.

    . . . Just a few weeks ago, Mark Wells’ medal sold again at auction. It commanded $310,700 for Heritage Auctions, or roughly $270,000 more than Wells got when he let it go to a private collector some eight years ago, a decision that still haunts him.

    “It killed me to sell the medal. Killed me,” Wells says, his voice breaking. “But my life was crumbling. I was going to lose my home. I needed to sell it to have surgery and to live. I had no choice.” He pauses and wipes his eyes.

    “The medal was a reward – a medal of honor, but really, it’s just a commodity. The memories are what’s most important. They can’t be bought. They can’t be sold. They will always be there and no amount of money can change that.”

    . . .

    Operation No. 6 – on his neck – is scheduled for early next year and Wells is optimistic it’s going to further improve his condition. . . .

    But three decades after Lake Placid, Mark Wells’ greatest source of strength by far is Mark Wells Jr. For years Wells wasn’t sure he would be able to father a child. Now that he has (Wells is not married to the baby’s mother and declines to disclose her name), he can barely fathom the joy it has brought him.

    “Every day I wake up and look at this beautiful child and feel inspired,” Wells says. “He has given me courage, a new beginning, a turning point. I don’t care who you are – whether you are an athlete or a writer or a CEO – you need something to inspire you. With all the struggles and trials and tribulations I’ve had, this baby is my inspiration to go out and further my capabilities and share my true life experiences.”

    Mark Wells and his baby boy are spending Thanksgiving at Mark’s brother’s house in Troy, Mich. Mark Jr. will be playing with his new favorite toy – his first hockey stick.

    “You should see him . . . he loves it,” Wells says. As he talks, Mark Wells heads out of the rink at the Westchester Skating Academy and pulls out his cell phone. He punches up a picture and there is an image of Mark Jr., tiny stick in his hands, looking ready for a faceoff. Mark Wells gazes at the photo and smiles and in that moment, he isn’t thinking of all of his hardship and pain, or the Olympic gold medal he doesn’t have anymore.

    He’s thinking only of his son.

    “My only regret is that I don’t have that medal to give to my son – to hand it to him and say, ‘This is for you,’ ” Mark Wells says.

    • Tom Carrier Tom Carrier says:


      Thank you. It is important to tell the stories of what happens to athletes and their memorabilia after their career has ended.

      As a collector myself (not of sports memborabilia, but more patriotica and political), auctioning off the gold medal by the new owner was probably intended just to recoup a bit more than what was paid. In their defense, they probably didn’t realize just how collectible the medal really was.

      Still, a bit of profit sharing by the seller would have been a good thing to do, especially knowing the circumstances of Mark Wells.

      Your comment reminded me of another blog I did about the post-careers of NFL football players and the struggles they go through with personal injuries, early dementia from constant bodily contact and at times paralysis in a rather rough spectator sport (search WorthPoint for: Living Glory, Collecting Pain, Sometimes their autograph or personal memorabilia sell well, but they see little of the proceeds themselves. Even the NFL doesn’t seem to take special notice of the toll the sport enacts on its players.

      How to combat that? It is important that players in all sports, especially professionals or Olympians, utilize sites like WorthPoint to constantly check on the value of the memorabilia in their sports category to keep up with value and collectibility.

      Doing so could help keep their post career collectibles as highly regarded as their career achievements always will be.

      Tom Carrier

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