Go For The Gold
You just can't talk about the Olympics without mentioning the ultimate: the gold. It's the ultimate athletic achievement; it's the prize sought after by the very best athletes from around the world, as they compete in every sport known to mankind (even golf counts).
And yet, it seems a tad weird that all of these elite athletes would dedicate their lives and make immense sacrifices just for a little disc of metal.
Sure, it's precious metal—right now one gram is worth about fifty bucks—but it's not like they can't earn twice its worth in sponsorships and advertising deals. Plus, it's not like they're going to go home and melt it down for some quick cash.
No, there's something about gold when it's sculpted into a coin shape and hung around an athlete's neck that makes everything worth it; and that's because of what it stands for. A gold medal represents a whole lot more than just cash money.
When the gold, silver and bronze medals were adopted for the Olympic Games in 1904, they had very specific symbolism derived from Greek mythology. Gold stood for the golden age, when men lived among gods. Silver was for the age when youth lasted for one hundred years, and the bronze era was the age of heroes. (Source)
Before 1904, athletes got other swag, like trophies or diplomas. And before that, in the original ancient Greek Olympic games, the winners were crowned with olive wreaths from a sacred tree near the Temple of Zeus in Olympia.
These days, though, it's all about the triumph of winning the gold medal…and that has a lot to do with national pride, the power of marketing, and the symbolism of gold itself.
In most places around the world, gold is the ultimate symbol of wealth, prestige, and affluence. That's why Latin American churches used it to adorn their altars, that's why there's golden Buddha statues, and it's why Donald Trump uses it as his primary decorating theme.
All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter
But truly, gold has almost nothing to do with it. After all, people wanted to win the Olympics before medals were even given out. And that's because the gold medal represents the fact that the person who wins it is the best of the best, the athlete who competed against the world's most elite athletes in their field and won.
So for many competitors, it's not even about the medal: it's about what winning it means.
For Joe Rantz, for example, it represented a constant that he could keep with him (and for someone with his history of transience and abandonment, that was pretty huge):
And yet the notion of Olympic gold had begun to work its way into his psyche. A medal would be real and solid. Something nobody could deny or take away. It surprised him how much it had begun to mean to him. (The Boys in the Boat)
For Larry Bird, it's about inspiring kids to pursue and work to achieve their dreams:
Bird does not display his gold medal. But, then, he doesn't display anything, his fingers bereft of championship rings. […] But don't think that his gold medal is insignificant to him. He knows right where his medal rests, and every four years he takes it out of a box for some show-and-tell.
"I'll take it to high schools just so kids can touch it, leave it there a few days, then get somebody to take it somewhere else," said Bird. "I took it to my kids' school and to my own high school back in French Lick. Just so kids, when they're talking about the Olympics, they get to see what the prize is, what it really means. I would've liked to have touched gold when I was a kid." (Dream Team)
Jesse Owens' coach Charles Riley told him it was a physical embodiment of pride for someone who was considered second-tier in American society:
"The Olympics," Riley told him, his knuckles white against the wooden steering wheel, "that's what matters. Representing your country. Records will be broken, but they can never take away gold medals." (Triumph)
In other words, because the gold medal's value lies largely in its symbolic meaning, it's going to mean different things to different people. (That's the power of symbolism, folks.)
For some, it's a validation of everything they've sacrificed to win. For others, it's finally earning recognition in a way that everybody understands. And that's why people from all different countries, from all different cultures, and with a range of different customs and values, can all appreciate what it means to win gold.