London 2012 Olympics: Biting medals after winning, where did tradition begin?
Lies, damn lies and statistics. Mark Twain would be proud. The Olympics have plenty of each.
Case in point: Some fascinating research by the Wall Street Journal. Somebody there watched every single medals ceremony in London so far and found the following:
• One quarter of female athletes receiving a gold medal cried, compared to only eight percent of the men. The paper noted, however, that “many of the men who did cry seriously lost it.”
• An average of 44 percent sang along with their national anthem (51 percent of the men and 35 percent of the women). The Chinese were the most likely to sing (92 percent vs. 61 percent from Great Britain and 44 percent from the US).
• More than 15 percent bit their gold medals (24 percent of the men and five percent of the women).
No doubt you’ve seen countless images of that last bullet point. But why? What possesses a newly crowned Olympic champion to pose with their prize pretending it was a milk-chocolate treat instead of the reward for being at the top of your chosen sport?
Gold medals definitely aren’t made of anything tasty. In fact, even if gold was delicious, there’s only one percent of it in gold medals being handed out in London. The last time the medals were actually made of gold was in 1912. These days, more than 90 percent of the award is silver. Melt the medal down and the raw materials are worth about $645. If they were solid gold, given their dimensions and the current price of gold, they would be worth about $45,000 (enough for Ryan Lochte to buy two new diamond grills).
Enough about the math, though. Biting the gold appears to be about emotions and recent history, with some ancient history thrown in for good measure. While nobody can quite pin down when the first gold medalist posed taking a faux bite, the theory about why goes like this: Back when coins were made of real gold, people often bit them to ensure they were actual gold. You can leave a mark in real gold. It’s softer than gold-plated lead. At some point an Olympian did this, and the tradition started. Now, Olympians bite their medals because that’s what they’ve seen others do.
In short, they bite them because they think they are supposed to (or because photographers tell them to). It’s simply part of the tradition of being a gold medalist.
“Sports all have their eccentricities,” psychologist Frank Farley explained to NBC News. “If you want to be part of the winning zeitgeist, that winning culture, you participate in that winning practice.
“It makes your medals yours,” the Temple professor said. “It’s an emotional connection with your accomplishment.”
A word of warning to athletes about that connection: Don’t connect too closely. German luger David Moeller, who won a silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, broke his tooth during the photo op after the medal ceremony.