Awards at the Olympics helped make gold our go-to emblem for excellence
I’ve never questioned the logic of “going for the gold,” as clearly objects made from gold are of superior quality to other metals, and thus make sense as a symbol of success. Why else would everything from Mario Kart to flour emphasize golden tokens so much? Nobody would ever strive and struggle for anything as mundane as some tree branches, right?
While gold does have some inherently attractive qualities, such as conductivity and a nice sparkle, winning golden trophies or medals is obviously a cultural construct. While gold was considered a rare and valuable metal thousands of years ago, the first Olympics used olive branches twisted into wreaths or crowns as awards, supposedly based on an award devised by Heracles himself. These symbols of victory were used from 776 BCE until the ancient Olympics were abolished in 400 CE by Theodosius.
In 1896, the Olympics were revived in Athens, complete with olive wreaths. These wreaths were accompanied by medals made of silver, with James Connolly being the first recipient for his exceptional abilities in the hop, skip and jump event, which we now call the triple jump. Runners up won bronze medals, as gold was just too expensive to hand out at that point. The second modern Olympiad shook things up a bit, dropping medals altogether in lieu of paintings and art as awards. It wasn’t until the 1904 Olympics that the idea of gold, silver and bronze awards were adopted, and even then they didn’t look like what athletes win at the Olympics today.
Designs of distinction
The early iterations of Olympic medals were more closely tied military traditions. The medals were smaller, hanging from a ribbon to be pinned to an athlete’s chest. In 1960, the awards brought back some of the earlier olive branch motifs, with medals being suspended by a chain that resembled laurel leaves. This didn’t last long, and we’ve been using the wide, colorful ribbons for medals at the Olympics ever since.
Since ribbons aren’t the primary symbol of excellence in western culture, the metal for each medal obviously counts for something as well. To tie the modern Olympics to its ancient heritage, gold, silver and bronze were intended to reflect aspects of ancient Greek history. The Golden Age was thought to be a time when gods and men lived together in peace, followed by the less pleasant Silver Age, when human weakness and impiety started to spoil things. The Bronze Age was then an even bigger let down with many wars, but was followed by the Heroic Age, which we oddly have no handy symbol for despite it sounding much better than blood-soaked bronze.
Monetary value does of course play a role as well. Aside from gold being too expensive for the first modern Olympics, athletes haven’t been awarded solid gold medals since 1912. Modern awards are generally silver that has been gilt with at least six grams of the more glorious metal. If this seems like a cop-out for this cultural touch-stone, it was something on the minds of even ancient Greeks. Aristophanes joked in 408 that even Zeus was too poor to pay out gold to victors, making them abide by olive branches, and even then only at four-year intervals.
Source: Go for the Gold: The Strange History of Olympic Medals, Dictionary.com