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16 Little-Known Secrets Behind Olympic Medals

What gold medals are really made of, how much they're worth at McDonald's, why Irish painters used to win them, and more.

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Medals have wildly different perks in different nations

Any South Korean athlete who wins an Olympic medal, for example, becomes exempt from the country’s mandatory two-year military service for males aged 18 to 35.

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Gold medals are NOT worth their weight in gold

In fact, regulations state that gold medals must be at least 92.5 percent silver, and plated with as few as six grams of gold. There hasn’t been a solid gold medal since 1912.

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iStock/Tolga TEZCAN

Gold medals can still be valuable though

Ukrainian boxer Wladimir Klitschko auctioned his gold medal for a children’s charity in 1996. A buyer purchased it for $1 million—then immediately returned the medal out of respect to Klitschko and his family.

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Gold medals can also be very costly

In 1984, McDonald’s ran a campaign that gave customers a chance to win a free Big Mac every time the U.S. won a gold medal. The U.S. won a shocking 83 gold medals, costing McDonald’s millions of dollars in lost profits. Here are more mind-blowing facts you never knew about McDonald’s.

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iStock/Craig Dingle

And sometimes, medals literally are money

After Australia removed their one-cent and two-cent coins from circulation in 1992, thousands were melted to make bronze medals for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. These are brilliant uses for your spare U.S. pennies.

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The strangest material to become an Olympic medal?

Probably a meteorite. Ten gold medals in the 2014 Sochi Games contained pieces of the massive meteor that exploded over Russia in February, 2013.

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America has the most Olympic medals by far

No nation approaches Team U.S.A.’s combined 2,681 summer and winter Olympic medals. Though it hasn’t existed for 25 years, the Soviet Union still comes in second place with 1,204 medals. Great Britain, in third, has 806. Team GB is, however, the only team to have won at least one gold medal at every single Summer Games since the modern Olympics began in 1896.

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iStock/kristian sekulic

One unlikely title America will defend at the Rio Games is…

…World rugby champions. After Team U.S.A. won the gold for rugby in 1924, the sport was stricken from the Olympic program for 92 years. America has been the reigning rugby champ since.

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Ireland’s first Olympic medal was for painting

Jack Butler Yeats—brother of poet W.B. Yeats—won a silver medal for his oil canvas, The Liffy Swim, in 1924. He was vanquished by a Luxembourgian artist who submitted two paintings of rugby, which hardly seems fair.

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Art competitions were part of the Olympics for decades

Five art categories—painting, literature, music, sculpture, and architecture—were introduced in the 1912 Olympics as the “Pentathlon of the Muses,” and remained official events until 1948. Other artsy-fartsy pursuits that could once earn you an Olympic medal: town planning, epic poetry, statues, watercolors, chamber music, and plaques.

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Before gold medals, winners got artwork

In the first modern Olympiad, held in 1894, there were no gold medals at all: First place athletes received silver medals, while second place received copper (third place got bubkes). Later, in the 1900 Paris Games, winners received valuable paintings and works of art rather than gold medals.

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Gold, silver, and bronze have a hidden meaning

Gold, silver, and bronze medals represent three of the five Ages of Man in Greek mythology. The Golden Age was a time when man and gods lived in harmony. The Silver Age saw man stray from piety, and the Bronze Age marks a period of war and violence. Supposedly we’re in the Iron Age now, but that’s all Greek to me.

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For 76 years, Olympic medals were emblazoned with a big error

Beginning in 1928, the front of every gold, silver, and bronze medal showed an image of the Roman Colosseum, despite the Olympic games’ Greek roots. This blunder was finally called to attention in 2004, when it was replaced with Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium.

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Medals aren’t the only trophies for winners

Every athlete placed first to eighth also receives an Olympic diploma. But you don’t even need to participate in an event to get a medal and diploma. Since the beginning of the modern Olympics, athletes, support staffs, event officials, and certain volunteers involved in planning and managing the Games have received commemorative medals and diplomas.

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The Rio 2016 medals will have unusual origins

Per the Games’ official website, “About 30 percent of the silver used in the new medals will be recycled waste from leftover mirrors, solder and X-ray plates. Bronze medals will be made with copper waste from the national mint.” Even the ribbons holding the medals will be woven with recycled plastic from old bottles.

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Paralympics medals are receiving a brilliant update, too

Beginning this year, tiny steel balls inside gold, silver, and bronze medals will allow visually impaired athletes to identify the ranking by shaking them and listening to the noise.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest