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The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Medals Will Be Made of Recycled Materials

The design for the medals, created by Junichi Kawanishi, were unveiled this week

(The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games)
smithsonian.com

Yesterday marked the start of the one year countdown to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and officials celebrated the occasion by unveiling the medals that will be draped around the necks of victorious athletes. As tradition dictates, the coveted prizes come in gold, silver and bronze, but the new medals also boast a sustainable innovation: They are made entirely from recycled metals.

Between April 2017 and March 2019, people from across Japan donated their old electronics to the initiative, which was spearheaded by the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. According to the website of the Olympic Games, yellow collection boxes were installed in post offices and on street corners throughout Japan, and the mobile phone company NTT DoCoMo also accepted donations at its stores, reports Daniel Cooper of Engadget.

In total, 78,985 tons of discarded devices were collected; digital cameras, handheld games, laptops and 6.21 million used mobile phones were counted among the electronics that made up the haul. The devices were then dismantled and melted down by “highly trained contractors,” explains the Olympic Games website. Experts were ultimately able to extract around 67 pounds of gold, more than 9,000 pounds of silver and 4,850 pounds of bronze—enough to make the 5,000 medals that will be handed out at the games.

This isn’t the first time that the Olympics has dabbled in using recycled materials for its prizes. During the 2016 Rio Games, around 30 percent of the silver and bronze medals were derived from recyclables. But according to the Olympic officials, “the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project has certainly been unique in its scale, marking the first time that a country’s citizens have been proactively involved in donating the electronic devices used to make the medals.”

While the collection project was underway, the hunt was also on for a talented artist to design the Olympic and Paralympic medals. A nation-wide competition for both professional designers and design students drew more than 400 entries, with the selection panel ultimately awarding the honor to Junichi Kawanishi, director of the Japan Sign Design Association and the Osaka Design Society. The front of Kawanishi’s winning design features the Tokyo Olympic emblem—a chequered ring in the “ichimatsu moyo” pattern, which became popular during Japan’s Edo period—the name of the upcoming games (“Tokyo 2020”) and the Olympic’s enduring five-rings symbol. The other side includes Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, in front of the Panatheniac stadium.

Regulations dictated many aspects of the design—the International Olympic Committee mandates that all medals must feature Nike, the stadium, the five-rings symbol and the official name of the games—but Kawanishi sought to bring a new twist to the medals with a ridged design that toyed with the reflection of light.

“By receiving light from various angles ... I thought about the cheers from the public and those thoughts are reflected,” Kawanishi told reporters on Thursday, according to Jack Tarrant Reuters. “Reflection of light reaches various directions so, I hope that the reflected light from the medal would reach all directions when it is worn by an athlete.”

Kawanishi’s selection as the medal’s designer was kept a secret until this week, though he was notified of his win last year. The news came as a surprise; so many designers had entered the competition that he didn’t think he stood much of a chance.

“When I received a phone call, I was relaxing at home and had a few drinks,” Kawanishi said, per Reuters' Tarrant.

“I became sober instantly,” he added, “but ... I remember that my heart was beating fast.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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