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How Much Gold is in a Gold Medal?

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On our last semi-regular "Ask Matt" day, reader Mel asked, “Are there standards for just how much gold is in those gold medals these Olympic athletes are getting?”

The amount of gold in medals is indeed regulated, and there’s a lot less than there used to be.

The prizes awarded at the Olympics have varied over their long history. Ancient Greek competitors were given an olive branch from a wild olive tree that grew at Olympia (and some drachma upon returning home a champion, too). When the first modern Olympic games organized by the International Olympic Committee were held in 1896 in Athens, winners got a silver medal and an olive branch, and runners-up received a bronze medal and a laurel branch.

At the 1900 Paris Games, some athletes got silver or bronze medals, but the majority received cups or other trophies. Gold medals made from solid gold were introduced at the 1904 St. Louis Games, and four years later in London, the medals began to be awarded to the top three placing athletes in the gold-silver-bronze order we’re familiar with today.

The 1912 Stockholm Games were the last time solid gold medals were awarded. These days, the IOC charter only requires that the first place medals be silver gilt, containing “silver of at least 925-1000 grade and gilded with at least 6g of pure gold.” The second place silver medals must contain silver of a similar grade. Beyond that, the specific composition of the medals, and their design, is largely left to the host city’s organizing committee.

Going for (1%) Gold

For this year’s London Games, the gold medals are roughly 93% silver, 6% copper and 1% gold (as of this writing, that’s about $300 worth of gold). The silver medals are 92% silver and 8% copper. The bronze medals are 97% copper, 2.5% zinc and 0.5% tin.

The medals have a value beyond the worth of their precious metal content, though. They’re pieces of history, and can command high asking prices on the market. A gold medal from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" American hockey team was auctioned off for over $300,000 a few years ago, and a bronze medal from the 1972 Munich Games recently sold for just shy of $3,000.

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A story from ancient Greece, back when athletes received only a humble olive branch, says a lot about what these prizes mean. In The Histories, Herodotus writes about a group of Arcadian deserters who went to the Persians looking for work. The Persians asked them what the Greeks were up to, and the Arcadians explained that their countrymen were “holding the Olympic festival and viewing sports and horse races.” The Persians asked what prizes were offered to the competitors and the Arcadians explained that the victors received a “crown of olive.”

“Then Tigranes son of Artabanus [a Persian regent] uttered a most noble saying,” writes Herodotus. “When he heard that the prize was not money but a crown, he could not hold his peace, but cried, ‘Good heavens, Mardonius [a Persian military commander], what kind of men are these that you have pitted us against? It is not for money they contend but for glory of achievement!’”

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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