Artist David Watkins designed the Olympic medals for the 2012 London Games (Lin Cheung designed the Paralympics medals), making him the creator of some of the most coveted objects in the world right now. The 4,700 medals are currently locked in the Tower of London vaults, quietly awaiting their moments of glory in the coming weeks.
The tradition of these prizes began with the first Olympiad in 1896, when the fastest runners were given sold bronze coins and the winners of the other games received silver discs. Jules Clement Chaplain designed the medals, which featured an image of Zeus holding Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, who has been the symbol of these games ever since the first events in Athens.
Watkins continues the tradition of featuring Nike on the front of the medal, showing her stepping out of the Panathenaic stadium, but not all designers were as kind to our Greek goddess of victory. In 1908 (the first Olympic games held in London), designer Bertram Mackennal replaced Nike with the patron saint of England, St. George. For the Antwerp games in 1920, Josue Dupon engraved Roman soldier Silvius Brabo onto the medal, making the symbol of the games a mythical man who killed Druon Antigoon and then threw the giant’s severed hand in the river Scheldt in Antwerp (the beginning of shot put perhaps?). A bit of trivia: Antwerp means “hand throwing.”
Perhaps the strangest looking medal was for the 1972 Munich games, for which Gerhard Marcks featured two alien-looking figures, Castor and Pollux, mythological twins who had different fathers – Spartan king Tyndareus and Zeus, king of the gods.
On the back of the 2012 London medal by David Watkins is an image of the River Thames intersected by shards that represent the energy of the athletes. This element of patriotic symbolism continues a trend begun in recent years, from the jade stone embedded in the 2008 Beijing medals to the Sydney Opera House in 2000. Unfortunately for Australian designer Wojciech Pietranik, the other side of his medal featured a building that critics said was not Greek, but rather one of the most famous examples of Roman architecture, the Colosseum.
As for the materials used, Watkins’ Olympic gold medal is the heaviest to date, weighing in at 400g, of which 6g is gold, and the rest is solid silver. Let the games begin…
For an engaging graphic of all Olympic medals since 1896, visit Epoca.