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This Olympic Medal Is Even Harder to Win Than the Gold

The International Olympic Committee values sportsmanship above all else

The Olympics' highest honor is named for Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

For athletes, there are few higher honors than winning a medal at the Olympics. Taking home a gold, silver or bronze means that an athlete has triumphed among the world's best competitors. However, though it isn’t nearly as well known as the other three, there is a fourth medal in the Games that blows the rest out of the water: the Pierre de Coubertin medal.

Named after the founder of the modern Olympic Games, the Coubertin medal was first inaugurated in 1964, and is awarded for special gestures and acts that exemplify the spirit of the Olympic Games, Stacy Conradt reports for Mental Floss. Since the Coubertin medal was first created, just 17 athletes have been awarded it, making it one of the highest honors a person can achieve in Olympic sports, Peter Scrivener writes for the BBC.

While the circumstances of each Coubertin medal is different, the stories are as dramatic as any gold medal-winning feat. One of the first of the Coubertin medals ever was awarded to the Italian bobsledder Eugenio Monti at the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. During one of the races, the British bobsledding team of Tony Nash and Robin Dixon broke one of the bolts that held their sled together. When Monti heard about their dilemma, he loaned them one of his—allowing them to go on and win the gold, Conradt reports. When Monti was asked later whether he regretted giving his rivals a hand in their victory, he shrugged it off.

"Nash didn’t win the gold medal because I gave him a bolt,” Monti said, “He won because he was the fastest."

The Coubertin medal can also be awarded to those who put their lead aside in favor of heroism. During the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was on track to win the silver medal when his competitors on the Singapore team capsized while facing high winds. Realizing they were injured in the incident, Lemieux ditched the race in order to rescue them. After getting the two men out of the water and waiting to make sure a patrol boat could take them to shore, Lemieux then rejoined the race, Iain Boekhoff reports for the Globe and Mail. While he finished in 22nd place, in recognition of his actions officials awarded him the Coubertin.

The medal has also been awarded posthumously. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were intended to be used by Nazi Germany as a propaganda tool for the Third Reich. But American track and field athlete Jesse Owens’ dramatic four gold medal-winning performances changed the narrative. His sportsmanship with German long jumper Luz Long also made headlines. After Owens failed two qualifying jumps, he was in danger of getting knocked out of the competition when Long approached him to suggest that he start a little further back on the take-off board, Scrivener reported. Owens took his advice and went on to win the gold. The two men later snubbed Adolf Hitler by embracing each other after the competition.

"It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens later said, as Scrivener reported.

Long died while fighting in World War II and some have since questioned whether the friendly exchange happened at all. Still, the International Olympic Committee posthumously awarded Long the Coubertin medal in honor of the spirit of the moment as an example of how sports can bring people together.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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