The Olympic gold medal is the ultimate badge of international athletic achievement, material proof that its owner has reached the highest rung on the sports ladder. And although the Sydney Olympic Organizing Committee will put no monetary value on the gold medal, they do admit that, in fact, precious little gold is involved. The medal that each Olympic champion is to receive will be made of 92.5 percent silver with only six grams of gold gilding.
Nevertheless, they are most often treasured by those who have claimed them. But even with all manner of care and caution, history offers a litany of incidents in which the precious prizes have been lost, stolen, passed along to family and friends, and, in one rare case, angrily discarded.
"I suppose," says marathoner Frank Shorter, who won the United States' first gold medal in 64 years in his specialty when he triumphed in Munich in 1972, "we're all a bit paranoid about the medal. You work a lifetime to get it, then you are so afraid someone is going to take it away from you that you hide it away. My medals [he also claimed the silver in the '76 Olympic marathon] are wrapped in an old athletic sock in a safety deposit box."
Sprinter Thane Baker, living in retirement in Granbury, won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash in 1952, and a silver (100 meters), a bronze (200 meters), and a gold as a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay in 1956. "I suppose there is very little cash value to them, but the thought of losing them is something everyone has to deal with. You want them to be where people who are interested can see them, but you don't want to risk losing them, either."
Baker resolved the problem with a unique solution: He sought the help of a sculptor friend who, using the same plastic material employed by dentists to mold dentures, made casts of the medals and designed identical copies. Those four replicas hang in Baker's trophy room. The originals are stored in a Dallas bank.
Even at that, Baker is not certain the lone gold medal he has is the one presented to him on the winner's stand 44 years ago in Melbourne. "The United States won the 400- and 1,600-meter relays on the same afternoon," he recalls, "and on the bus ride back to the Olympic Village, my medal and Arnie Sowell's [a member of the 1,600-meter team] were being passed around. Somehow, they got mixed up. To this day, for all I know I have Arnie's medal and he has mine."
There was a time when Olympic 100-meter champion and record holder Jim Hines would have settled for anyone's medal. Shortly after his return from Mexico City, where he won not only the 100-meter gold medal but won as a member of the winning U.S. 400-meter relay, the former Texas Southern University sprinter feared his prizes were lost forever. Returning to his Houston apartment one evening, he found burglars had taken his television, stereo, most of his wife's jewelry--and his gold medals.
In a long-shot attempt to communicate with the thieves, Hines placed an ad in one of the Houston newspapers, stating that the culprit could keep the stolen items with no questions asked. His only request was that the two gold medals be returned. Eventually they were, returned by mail in a plain brown envelope. Hines immediately hustled them to a safety deposit box where they will remain until passed to his children.
Dallas speed skater Dorothy Langkop has not enjoyed such success in recovering a lost medal. Winner of a 500-meter exhibition in the Los Angeles Winter Olympics in 1932 and the 1,500-meter event in 1936, one of her medals was the victim of her children's back yard fantasy games.
"When I was still competing," Langkop explains, "I kept all my medals in a bread box. As the children got older, they liked to get them out and play with them. They would take them out into the back yard and play soldier, pinning them on each other, that sort of thing. At some point the make-believe turned from soldier to pirates, and one of my Olympic medals became a part of someone's buried treasure. To this day, it's still buried out there somewhere, but we've never been able to locate it." The other, however, is now safely framed and hangs in her home.
"When you're still competing," she says, "the medals you win aren't nearly as important to you as they become in later years. I'm glad I still have one of mine. I guess I should worry about losing it too, but I can't stand the idea of putting it away where no one can see it."
There are a few, however, who have disdained the award. It was a young gold medal-winning boxer, then named Cassius Clay, who, according to his autobiography, found the medal a great disappointment. Entering a restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after his victorious return from the 1960 Games in Rome, Clay, now Muhammad Ali, was wearing the medal around his neck as he and friends were informed that blacks, gold medal or no, would not be served. Upset and disenchanted by the fact that winning the light-heavyweight championship had done little to alter his life at home, he walked to the nearby bank of the Ohio River and hurled his medal into the water.
Ali's story is a rarity. For most past Olympic winners, the gold medal is their Hope Diamond. Earl Young, a Dallas businessman who returned from the 1960 Olympics in Rome as a member of the winning 1,600-meter relay, is among those who strongly feels his medal should be shared. For most of the summer, it, along with those won by pole vault champion Bob Richards in the 1952 and '56 Olympics, has been on display at the Ballpark in Arlington's museum. Recently, Young took his on a business trip to Mauritius at the request of the island's prime minister.
"It's gotten a little worn and weather-beaten over the years," Young says, "so a while back I took it to a jeweler and asked what he thought about polishing it up, maybe even putting a new gold coating on it. He refused. He explained that part of the charm and attraction of the medal is its antique look. I thought about it and finally agreed with him."
Longtime Hollywood stuntman Dean Smith, a gold medal winner on the 400-meter relay in Helsinki in 1952, embraces Young's attitude toward sharing. But it took him a while to get the opportunity. Now retired and living on a ranch outside Breckenridge, Smith was the first athlete from the University of Texas to win an Olympic gold medal.
"My coach, Clyde Littlefield, was really proud of that and carried the medal around in his pocket for a year, showing it off to everyone he saw. I couldn't talk him into giving it back for the longest. Then, when I finally did, I gave it to my grandmother, who kept it in her cedar chest for years."
Mothers have been favored recipients of Olympic medals. When 400-meter dash champion Lee Evans won his gold in Mexico City, he went directly from the victory stand to where his mother was seated in the stands and presented it to her. Sprinter Gerald Tinker did the same thing after the U.S. 400-meter relay team won in Munich. And just minutes after former Dallas Cowboys legend Bob Hayes had been crowned the World's Fastest Human, winning the Tokyo Olympic 100 meters by the widest margin in modern history, he kept a promise to Mary Hayes, who sat in the stadium that day.
"I had told her before the race," Hayes remembers, "that I was going to win her a gold medal. I told her to just sit tight and I'd be there shortly. As soon as I got down off the victory stand, I took it to her."
What Hayes did with a second gold he won as the anchor of the 400-meter relay might have caused another former gold medal winner, Dr. Benjamin Spock, to wonder. When Hayes' baby daughter was teething, he recalls, his wife would place the gold medal in the refrigerator, chill it, then give it to the infant to chew on. "That medal," Hayes recalls, "quieted her more quickly than anything we ever tried."
Without exception, the most controversial medals in the history of the Olympic Games are those that were revoked from the legendary Jim Thorpe following his triumphs in the decathlon and pentathlon in Stockholm in 1912. A year after his victories, it was learned that Thorpe had been paid $60 per month for playing on a semi-pro baseball team in the summers of 1909 and 1910. Upon learning the news, the International Olympic Committee declared Thorpe a professional athlete and voted to strip him of his medals and strike his name from the record books. His awards were eventually passed to runners-up in the events he'd handily won.
The furor over what many deemed the unfair treatment of the young man hailed by many as the world's greatest athlete lasted long beyond his death in 1953 as family, friends, and fans urged that his medals be returned. Finally, in 1983, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch presented Thorpe's family with newly minted replicas of the medals he had won.
Olympic officials had first attempted to locate the original medals that had been presented to Ferdihand Bie (pentathlon) of Norway and Hugh Wieslander (decathlon) of Sweden, only to find that one had been destroyed in a fire and the other stolen years earlier.
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It was, says Thorpe's son, William, 74, a financial consultant in Arlington, that same concern that prompted the family to entrust the medals to the State of Oklahoma for safe-keeping. "The only time I've ever held one of Dad's medals," he says, "was on the day it was presented to me. Mr. Samaranch handed one to me and the other to my sister Gail."
Another sprinter, Lampasas High ex Johnny Jones, who won a gold medal as a 17-year-old member of the U.S. 400-meter relay in Montreal, felt others might better benefit from his prize. While a student at the University of Texas, Jones became actively involved in the Special Olympics program for handicapped children. In a gesture that stunned many of his fellow Olympians as well as Special Olympics national president Eunice Schriver, Jones donated his medal to the organization.
"At the time," the former New York Jets wide receiver says, "I didn't have any money, and I wanted to do something more than just work as a volunteer at their track meets. Watching those kids compete, disregarding their handicaps, made me realize how lucky I was."
Jones' generosity is not the only Olympian gesture on record. Over the course of four Olympic Games, Houston's Carl Lewis collected an amazing nine gold medals in the sprints, long jump, and relays. However, only eight of them are being kept in a bank vault. In 1987, at the funeral of his father, William, who had died of cancer, Lewis quietly slipped the first gold he'd earned--by winning the 100-meter dash in Los Angeles--into the casket.