Winners Got Silver Medals at the First Modern Olympic Games in 1896

A rare example of the nearly 130-year-old silver medal just sold at auction for $112,000

Side by side of Olympic silver medal from 1896
One side of the silver medal depicts Zeus holding Nike in the palm of his hand, while the other side features the Acropolis in Athens. RR Auction

The countdown is on for the upcoming Summer Olympics in Paris, and the buzz surrounding the games is only intensifying. Case in point: An Olympic medal from 1896 just fetched nearly $112,000 at auction, reports the Observer’s Alexandra Tremayne-Pengelly.

RR Auction sold the silver medal—along with many additional pieces of Olympic memorabilia—on January 18. Other items include the torch from the 1980 Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid, a torch relay safety lantern from the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and a ticket to the 1908 games held in London.

The silver medal was made for the first modern Olympic Games, which were held in Athens in the summer of 1896. At the time, winners in each sport were awarded silver medals instead of the shiny gold ones that have become closely tied to Olympic victories today, while second-place winners received bronze medals. Third-place finishers, meanwhile, received no medals at all.

Designed by French sculptor Jules-Clément Chaplain, the nearly 130-year-old silver medal features a relief portrait of Zeus holding the goddess of victory, Nike, in his palm, with the word “Olympia” running along the left side. The other side depicts the Acropolis in Athens, with the phrase “International Olympic Games in Athens, 1896” written in raised Greek characters.

Bobby Livingston, the auction house’s executive vice president, describes the medal in a statement as “a magnificent and historic artifact that captures the essence of the birth of the modern Olympic Games.”

Bronze medal in case
A second-place bronze medal from 1896 sold for $55,000 during the sale. RR Auction

The auction house also sold a bronze second-place medal from the 1896 Athens games, which went for $55,000. That medal, also designed by Chaplain, was still in its original leather case lined with velvet.

Though the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, the games’ history stretches all the way back to 776 B.C.E. The ancient Olympics were held in Olympia, Greece, for more than 1,000 years until Theodosius I banned them in 393 C.E. The Roman emperor was a Christian who considered the Olympics a form of pagan celebration.

The Olympics returned in the late 19th century—but the practice of awarding winners with gold medals, runners-up with silver medals and third-place finishers with bronze medals didn’t begin until 1904.

This year, athletes from around the world will descend upon Paris to compete in more than 300 events, ranging from surfing to road cycling to rugby. In the meantime, Paris’ leaders are preparing the city for the influx of athletes and tourists. This work includes a $1.5 billion project to clean up the river Seine, which officials hope to use for Olympic swimming events and the opening ceremony.

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