Moulding gold: in the studio with the Olympic and Paralympic medal makers
With Team GB neck-and-neck with China and closing in on the USA's enviable overall lead (maybe), the only things tearing us away from the Rio 2016 Olympic medal table this summer are the medals themselves.
The Olympic Organising Comittee design team has enlisted the help of the Royal Brazilian Mint (who produced medals for the 2011 Military World Games and 2007 Pan-American Games, both held in Rio) to craft the 5,130 Olympic and Paralymic medals needed for the 2016 games.
Sports fans like us will have noticed many athlete's podium-side comments on the weight and size of their new neckware. Each medal (whether gold, silver or bronze) weighs a hefty 500g, and is over 1cm thick in the middle. The 2016 medals are domed, thinning to 6mm at the edges – the first Olympic medals to taper in this way. Despite this, there's still plenty of space around the rim of each medal for the all-important discipline to be laser-embossed.
Rio 2016 is keen to be seen as the 'sustainability games', and the medal-making has been held to strict environmental criteria. All the gold used in production is entirely free of mercury, and is traceable from extraction to refining. The silver model is made from 30 per cent recycled materials, and 40 per cent of the bronze medal started life as industrial waste.
As far as the engraving designs go, the reverse remains unchanged since the Athens Olympics in 2004, when Greek couture jeweller Elena Votsi chose Nike, the winged godess of victory, to be the carved on the back. Flip it over and the simple Rio 2016 logo (which is markedly less contentious than the London 2012 one) is suspended between figurative, interlinking laurel leaves.
The Paralympic medals, although no different in materials and design, feature an additional innovation. Each medal has a device inside, filled with steel balls, which vibrate, making a noise when the medal is shaken, allowing visually impaired athletes to recognise whether they're gold, silver or bronze (gold has the loudest noise, bronze the quietest).
Sustainability, materials, craft and design all factor in making these medals the most exclusive pendants on the planet. But they're more than mere baubles – they are symbols of otherwoldly sporting achievement, worthy of the goddess depicted on the reverse. As Brazilian Mint's Lara Amorelli concludes, 'These medals represent the high point of the career of an athelete who is dedicated to reach the podium. When this happens, it is only fair that the medal symbolises their achievement, and for this reason, we seek to produce pieces of rare artistic beauty.'