When I saw a photo of the some winning athletes biting their medals, I cringed. Just what are those medals made of and what are they putting in their mouths? I assumed that it would be too expensive to have large gold medallions — no matter which sporting event — each be made of all precious metals. The raw material costs for the hundreds if not thousands of medals earmarked for major sporting events, would be a very expensive undertaking given the fact that gold is trading at over $1,300 an ounce (at this writing), along with silver and other metals,.
Even the Royal Mint doesn’t produce gold medals from solid gold. At a major sporting event a few years ago, first place winners received 85 mm (diameter) medals made of Gold (1.34%), Silver (92.5%), and Copper; second place received Silver (92.5%) and Copper; third place received Copper (97%), Zinc (2.5%), Tin (0.5%). These medals give new meaning to the value of Gold, Silver, and Bronze.
Another interesting fact is that gold medals are usually plated with six grams of 24K gold which makes them look so great. The interior is usually sterling silver, which is the same as the silver medal – a large percentage of silver combined with a small percentage of copper. However, if you would just simply mix sterling silver and 1.2% gold, a gold medal would pretty much look like a silver medal.
Some medals are even made with recycled materials. Some manufacturers make use of recycled raw silver at 92.5 per cent purity, coming from leftover mirrors, waste solders and X-ray plates. And copper used in bronze medals can be extracted from waste at the mint itself. The substances are usually melted and decontaminated to provide material for medals and help ensure they are completely free of toxic materials.
Free of toxic metals is a good thing if athletes are munching on them. Why do they even bite the medals? CNN reported that the “practice of biting into metal seems to have its roots in money counterfeiting. Money handlers would bite down on coins to test their authenticity, said David W. Lange of Numismatic Guaranty Corporation. Gold is a relatively soft metal and would show wear when distressed.” And it makes a great photo opp for the media.
Maybe race organizations should supply portable XRF analyzers to the athletes. Metal manufacturing and processing requires precision at the elemental level, but with globalized trade in scrap metal, the rise in counterfeit metals, and the possibility of inaccurate material test reports (MTRs), all participants in the metal industry — suppliers, distributors, consumers, and in this case athletes — are at risk of alloy mix-ups. This year especially, XRF analyzers could be used to analyze the scrap materials. XRF analysis takes the guesswork out of scrap metal contents and gives the exact chemical composition—including the existence of contaminants or hazardous elements. It can also determine if it contains a trace of the wrong material.
Even jewelry store owners who deal with gold and precious metals everyday do not resort to biting the metal. They use desktop precious metals analyzers to quickly distinguish between gold plating and solid gold and determine the accurate karat (K) weight of gold jewelry right in front of customers. Now that seems to be a more sanitary and safe way to figure out how much gold is in a gold medal than to bite down on it. The analysis can even be a great photo opp for the winners. Why not? These customers look like winners when they are demonstrating XRF analyzers in these videos: