With the 2016 Summer Olympics upon us in Rio de Janeiro, the world's foremost athletes are getting ready to win the gold. But what's the origin story behind the medals and their ancient Greek predecessors?
The second-century C.E. Roman writer Lucian says that, "at Olympia, a wreath of wild olive" went to the winner. Some people found this funny; Herodotus records that some Greeks who'd allied themselves with the Persians surprised their new friends with news of Olympian prizes. When asked what their countrymen were up to at the time, said the Greeks, "they are holding the Olympic Games, seeing the athletic sports and the chariot-races." What were they awarded, asked the Persians? When the Greeks informed them the Olympians competed for an olive wreath, one of the foreign commanders exclaimed, "Good heavens! Mardonius, what manner of men are these against whom thou hast brought us to fight? Men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honor!"
The reconstructed Temple of Zeus at Olympia, where the ancient Olympics were held. Image via Olympia City Guide.
Where did the olive wreath as reward for Olympic victory come from? According to Pausanias, a guy named Heracles (a man from Crete, not the lion skin-wearing hero and son of Zeus) ran some races at Olympia with his brothers. He "crowned the winner with a branch of wild olive, of which they had such a copious supply that they slept on heaps of its leaves while still green." Pliny the Elder adds that "at Olympia there is a wild olive, from which Hercules received his first wreath." Historically, the olive wreath wasn't awarded to the victor until about 752 B.C.E., according to some sources. Only a young man who had two living parents was allowed to trim the famous olive tree, from which the wreath would be woven, with a golden sickle.
With the advent of the modern Olympics, a new type of prize was needed. The first competition, held in Athens in 1896, had a hodgepodge of awards; every participant received a bronze medal, while first-place finishers received silver medals and wreaths (this time of laurel, a symbol of Roman military conquest). If you came in second, you'd get a wreath and a copper medal. It wasn't until the games in St. Louis eight years later that gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded (in 1900, in the Parisian Games, victors got paintings). These metals have ancient significance, as well; the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Ages were mythologically thought to be different Ages of Men. The Golden Age was a virtual paradise, then everything got worse and worse in each age.
Feature image via Ancient Olympics.