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London Olympics: All That Glitters May Not Be, but Every Medal Is Still Pure Gold

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Amid all the supremely genuine articles at the 2012 London Olympics, the athletes at the pinnacle of hard won achievement, an imposter lurks. It is the object of desire, the point of all the sacrifice, the endless hours of training, the steely resolve - the gold medal. It is a thing of beauty - but, I'm afraid, not actually gold.

Symbolically, of course, a gold medal is the height of human accomplishment. An emblem of the purest, most selfless achievement. But in the interest of all who love Olympic lore and just for the record: the gold medal is mostly silver. 92.5% to be exact.

No one is suggesting that the following words should ever boom out across London's Olympic Stadium: "The winner of the gold-plated medal is... " Still, no getting around it - that is the metallurgical makeup of the thing. Second place? The silver medal is actually a bit more "the real deal." It's 92.5% silver too. The rest is copper. The bronze? 97% copper with a smidgen of zinc (2.5%) and a dash of tin (0.5%).

Whatever the percentages, of course, the medals, 4,700 of them this year, awarded in 805 victory ceremonies, will be 100% the stuff of triumphant dreams. At the same time, given how central gold, silver and bronze have become to the competition, it's interesting to note that at the first games of the modern era, in 1896, no gold medals at all were bestowed. The ancient Games conferred an olive wreath on winners, so the re-born Olympics at first attempted to mirror that, presenting a silver medal for first place, accompanied by an olive branch. Second place won a bronze medal and a laurel branch. In 1900, there were no medals at all, just cups and trophies.

Only in 1904, in St. Louis, did the International Olympic Committee (IOC) create the tradition of gold, silver and bronze. That year, and in 1908, the last time London hosted, and in 1912, in Sweden, the first place medals were the genuine article. Solid gold. As Europe and the world veered into war, it all, presumably, just got too expensive. The current construction became the standard, and that's never changed. But that's not to say the medal's composition or the gold-silver-bronze hierarchy will never change. The IOC chose what was valuable (and practical) for that particular Olympic year. In a historical rarity, gold is more expensive that platinum right now, but usually it is the other way around, so perhaps we will see a platinum medal at Rio 2016 or a future games.

One distinction of this year's gold medal should be pointed out. It's the heaviest ever, at 400 grams. Six grams of that, on the surface of it, gold. And 7mm thick, with a diameter of 85mm. Rio Tinto, the mining company, contributed eight tonnes of gold, silver and copper, extracted from its giant Kennecott Mine in Utah, (so big it's visible from space) and from another of its mines in Oyu Tolgoi, Mongolia, for this year's prizes, which were produced by the Royal Mint in South Wales. Septuagenarian British artist David Watkins crafted the design, with Nike (the Greek goddess, not the shoe) emerging out of the Parthenon into London on one side and on the other the 2012 London logo crisscrossed by a web of delicate, intersecting sticks and an unfurling ribbon meant to symbolize the River Thames that unites the great, sprawling city of London.

A city of turbulent life - and deep history. It is somehow fitting that in addition to the contemporary stylings of this year's medals will be the fact that, once forged, they have been stored in, of all places, the Tower of London. Amid the ghosts of vanquished royals and scallywags, burnished medallions of victory.

Not exactly run-of-the mill warehousing. But there could never be anything common about an Olympic medal. They radiate the essence of the Games. Gold, silver, or bronze - all confer a real measure of immortality - whatever they're really made of.

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