By Jason Notte
A gold medal at the 2012 London Summer Olympics is valued in the hours, effort and money spent to obtain it, but all that glitters isn't gold.
The price of gold has soared from roughly $1,000 an ounce during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing to $1,584 an ounce by mid-July of this year. That's a pretty steep discount on 5 a.m. practices every day since age 5 or a national sports governing body's annual budget, but it gets even steeper when you consider the medal's true makeup.
If an Olympian or the average Joe tried to cash in a medal from this year's games by means other than an auction or a sports memorabilia dealer, they'd be parting with 92.5 percent silver, 6.16 percent copper and 1.34 percent gold. International Olympic Committee rules dictate that gold medals need to contain at least 550 grams of silver and at least six grams of pure gold coating. That adds up to a medal worth roughly $800 for "gold" medal winners in London, which is a huge discount from a medal worth its weight in gold.
While the medals have become weightier over time, it's been weight without the heft of much gold. In fact, the last Olympics to offer 100 percent gold medals was the 1912 games (the year before the Federal Reserve Act was enacted, incidentally.)
Given the current price of gold, if this year's medal was 100 percent gold, you could buy a decent new car with it. We took a look at the Olympic gold medals awarded throughout history and, by weight and by the $1,584-an-ounce market value set in mid-July, came up with the gold-equivalent value of the largest "gold" medals ever awarded. While some would be worth as much as the Hyundai Accent or the down payment on a modest home, the biggest medals of the bunch could put more than a pound of gold in a lucky athlete's pocket:
Weight of medal: 7.05 ounces
Current value: $11,167
China tricked out its medals with a bit of jade, which is a big reason the weight of its gold metals is the lowest on this list. Still, China won back about $570,000 of the estimated $14 billion to $40 billion it spent on the Olympics by topping the medals table with 51 golds in 2008. American swimmer Michael Phelps had the best haul of any athlete in Beijing, taking home 3.5 pounds of gold worth roughly $89,000 after winning eight gold medals.
Weight of medal: 7.23 ounces
Current value: $11,452
The Winter Olympics dominate this list, mostly because their medals are overwhelmingly larger and heavier than those of their summer counterparts. American fans remember these games for the U.S. hockey team's "Miracle On Ice" win over the Soviet Union, but even the team's gold-medal win against Finland couldn't push it ahead of the Soviets on the medals table. The U.S.S.R. took home 10 gold medals worth roughly $158,000 today.
Weight of medal: 7.44 ounces
Current value: $11,785
The Trionfo design created by Giuseppe Cassioli had been used for every Summer Olympics medal since 1928, but this was perhaps the only year it made any sense. Cassioli put Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, on the medal's front holding a crown and palm. The only problem is that for 40 years, she held them while standing in front of the Roman Colosseum. This angered the Greeks to no end and resulted in the design getting the boot altogether in 2004. Why so touchy? Columns, gods, the Mediterranean, oil-laden foods ... it's all the same, right?
Weight of medal: 8.15 ounces
Current value: $12,910
This version updated Trionfo, but the key change was bulking up to a solid half-pound of gold. If Michael Jordan was going to throw a flag over his warm-ups because they didn't have a Nike logo on them, there's no way the Dream Team was going to stroll around Las Ramblas wearing anything less than a half-pounder around their necks. Jordan, Bird and Magic aside, the real gold rush of 1992 was made by the 12 former Soviet republics competing as the Unified Team. Even with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania going solo, the Unified Team took home 45 gold medals to the U.S. team's 37 and amassed about $581,000 worth of gold during its farewell tour.
Weight of medal: 9.2 ounces
Current value: $14,573
Sure, Tara Lipinski and the U.S. women's hockey team took home the gold from Nagano, but they were two (the team medals are counted as one) of the six total gold medals the U.S. won in 1998. The big dog in Japan that year was Germany, whose haul of 12 gold medals would be worth $175,000 today.