History of Olympic gold, silver and bronze glitters in Paris museum

By Paul Myers - RFI

As nearly 11,000 obsessed and stressed athletes continue their preparations around the globe for the 2024 Olympics in Paris in just over three months, around 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals remain under lock and key in the various vaults of La Monnaie de Paris – the Paris Mint – waiting to garland the frames of the elite three who will receive gold, silver and bronze for coming first, second and third in their event.

It wasn't always so. The inaugural edition of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 offered a silver and a bronze medal to the top two - a radical departure from the ancient games in Greece where only the winner was hailed.

For the reboot in the late 19th century, La Monnaie de Paris made the medals. "At the time, La Monnaie de Paris was making Greek coins," explained Dominique Antérion who is curating the exhibition Gold, Silver Bronze at the latter day La  Monnaie de Paris about the history of Olympic medals.

"So making the medals for the Games was the same kind of thing – more or less."

And to underline the stature of La Monnaie de Paris at the genesis of the era inspired by the Frenchman Pierre de Courbetin, the exhibition boasts the first Olympic medal designed by Jules-Clément Chaplain.

"We have the two tools – the two dies – to make the medal for the front and back," Antérion added proudly.

The medal of the American triple jumper James Connolly – the first winner of an Olympic medal – adorns the exhibition along with the five gold medals from the 1924 Paris Games brandished by Finland's Paavo Nurmi who was nicknamed 'the Flying Finn' for his exploits in the middle and long distance races.


When gold medals made their debut at the 1900 Olympics in Paris, the innovation was rectangular and designed by the Frenchman Frédéric de Vernon.

"The shape was very fashionable in France around the fin du siècle," said Antérion. "And they are superb, magnificent pieces."

Not so splendid though was the event which went virtually unnoticed as it clashed with the six-month long Universal Exhibition.

The fiasco prompted de Courbetin to lobby anew for Paris but while the brains behind the games glad-handed, St Louis, London, Stockholm and Antwerp hosted the subsequent extravaganzas before they returned to Paris in 1924.

In St Louis, instead of medals being handed out in boxes, they were pinned onto tracksuit tops hanging from a little ribbon.

The fad faded. Medals were back in their boxes by Stockholm and the custom continued up until the 1960 Games in Rome where they were placed around the necks of the first three on metal leaf chains. While other organising committees have since opted for ribbons, such flexibility has not been evident in the design of the medals.


Between 1928 and 1968, the medals for the Summer Games bore Giuseppe Cassioli's 'Trionfo' design of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, holding a winner's crown with a depiction of the Colosseum in the background.

The reverse featured a crowd of people carrying a victorious athlete. From the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the reverse side was left to the whims of the organising country.

Cassioli's work was ditched for the 2004 Games in Athens. Elena Votsi's design highlights Nike with the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens in the background. 

"While the medals for the Summer Games were always the same, the Winter Games were having the time of their lives," said Antérion. "They were doing what they wanted. There were no constraints."

The exhibition, which runs through the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games until 29 September, displays medals from the first Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924 as well as a patinated bronze medal from Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy in 1956.

"The medals were also made by great design houses, sometimes goldsmiths," added Antérion.


A medal from the 1988 Calgary Winter Games showing a native Indian in profile with the feathers of a head dress comprising shapes of a ski, luge and bobsleigh, draws particular praise.

"It's superbly well done," Antérion enthused. "And admirably well designed, drawn and conceived. You can see that this winter medal is a field of total freedom for the creators and designers."

For the impending summer show in France, some prized local metal will be added to what the athletes describe charmingly as "the hardware".

Disused iron girders from the Eiffel Tower have been melted down and shaped into a hexagon – the locals' nickname for France. 

"There's an intimacy between the athlete who wins the medal and the object itself," said Antérion

"When you are watching on TV, you often see the medal being awarded and the athlete turning to celebrate. Then it moves on to the next shot and we just don't see the medal."