Olympic medals are handed out every two years. As the anthem plays and tears fall, the camera often focuses in on the medals—the gold one especially—and naturally, viewers are bound to wonder how much is that thing worth?
As with anything, a gold medal's true value depends on your point of view. The organization that hands out medals may value them very differently than the individual who wins one. How much a collector is willing to pay for such a medal is a different animal altogether, as is how much the medal's metal would be worth if it were melted down.
The point is, there are many different ways to value an Olympic gold medal. Let's break it down.
The Scrap Value: $501
The first and easiest way of calculating the value of a Olympic gold medal is figuring what the metal is worth if one were melted down. Since the Mexico games in 1968, the medals have averaged 65.8 millimeters in diameter, 6.5 millimeters in thickness, and 176.5 grams in weight. London's were the largest, at between 375 and 400 grams.
But gold medals aren't made of gold, not entirely anyway. Only about six grams of each medal are 24-karat gold; the rest is sterling silver. ("Sterling" means 92.5% silver and the rest copper.) In today's values, that makes the average gold medal worth around $366. London's bigger golds are worth $501 nowadays. (At the high 2012 precious metals prices, the medals from London would have been worth around $777.)
What if gold medals really were solid gold? Wired calculated that a typical gold medal would weigh 3.35 pounds and be worth around $76,000 in terms of the pure value of the gold.
The Value to Collectors: $10,000 to Over $1 Million
Hundreds of gold medals are awarded during every Olympic games, and it's inevitable that some athletes—who, more often than not, won't get rich from their sport—wind up selling them. Medals are auctioned off fairly regularly, so there's some hard data on what they're worth to somebody who wants to buy one.
There is a wide variance in what medals sell for at auction. Boston-based RR Auction, which has sold many gold medals, told USA Today that an average price for a "common" gold medal—think archery or water polo, with no well-known athlete's name attached—is about $10,000. Rarer, older medals can easily sell for much more. Browsing through RR Auction's archives, there's a January 2016 sale that included four gold medals, with prices from $47,746.83 for a gold from Chamonix 1924 to $10,114.83 for a Melbourne 1956 gold.
If a medal is gilded with publicity as well as the standard six or more grams of gold, the value equation is completely different, and auction prices can shoot through the roof. The only remaining medal of the original four won by Jesse Owens in 1936 sold for $1.47 million in 2013. One of the "Miracle on Ice" medals from the 1980 Team USA hockey team was expected to fetch $1.5 to 2 million, but it failed to sell at auction earlier this summer.
The Value of All That Time & Training: $100,000+
Another way to look at the value of a gold medal is how much it costs the participant just to have a chance at winning one. Olympic Hollywood fairytales are often big budget affairs. Specialized skills mean specialized training, coaching, and equipment—all of which can be enormously expensive.
Last Olympics, the New York Times reported that U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin's parents dropped $100,000 per year on her sport. Olympic cyclist Bobby Lea has poured thousands upon thousands of dollars year after year for the chance to top the podium. Former speed skater Eric Flaim told MarketWatch that his sport cost his family at least $250,000, and he got a pair of silvers.
Every sport, athlete, and family has different amounts of "investment" needed, and it's probably too difficult to calculate an average expenditure in a meaningful way due to the massive variance. Training full time, sacrificing studies and jobs, can have huge opportunity costs as well, as missing out on necessary education and prime years of work experience take tolls on later earnings.
Even if an average cost could be found, a second factor would render it relatively meaningless since you can't guarantee a spot on an Olympic roster, let alone the top step of the podium. For every family that supports an gold medalist, there are thousands who never get within sniffing distance of the Olympics. Even a child of gilded Olympians furnished with full support of the state can't guarantee a stuck landing. In the end, all the money spent on training, coaching, and competitions is the equivalent of a really expensive lottery ticket.
The Bonus Value: $25,000+
Jesse Owens once said, "I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals." Still, Owens did make some money racing against horses and speaking about his accomplishments later in life, which he couldn't have done if not for the fame and glory he earned by winning all those medals.
Nowadays, the U.S. Olympic Committee gives a $25,000 check to each American gold medal winner. But that's just the start of what winning gold can earn for an athlete.
Just as there's a wide spectrum for a medal loaded with history versus one earned in an overlooked skeet shooting competition, the prestige a medal bestows upon the winner depends on the sport and the back story of the event and its participants. A gold medal in a popular sport can mean million-dollar endorsements deals, commentating gigs, and more. But sports without vibrant business models and followings will prevent a gold medal from earning much beyond fame in a small niche community.
A gold medal is the pinnacle for Olympians. But given that there were 301 gold medals given out in London 2012, each with a different story for how it was won, it's next to impossible to say what any given medal is truly worth.