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Dispelling Some Myths: Ancient Olympic Medals?

“I don’t believe it!” Bargain Hunt strikes again broadcasting “facts” that are at best described as misleading and at worst simply untrue. On October 2nd, 2020, the BBC aired a BBC Bargain Hunt Sports Special that included a sequence related to the Olympics. During this segment, the presenter, Eric Knowles, stated that wreaths and silver and bronze medals were awarded to victors at the ancient Olympic Games. This is not true.

A search of Wikipedia will quickly discover that winners of the various disciplines at the ancient Olympic Games were awarded an olive wreath (kotinos, κότινος). Each of these victory crown was cut from the Sacred Olive Tree (Olea oleaster) growing at Olympia and intertwined to form a circle or a horseshoe. As the sacred rite required, the olive branch was cut with a golden sickle by a boy whose parents were still living.

According to the geographer Pausanias, this prize was introduced by Heracles for the winner of a running race honouring Zeus. As a symbol of victory, olive wreaths were worn with pride and honoured throughout Greece. Olympic champions were often rewarded by their polis ("city-state") with vats of olive oil and large sums of money (in Athens, for example, a prize of 500 drachma, a small fortune, is known to have been awarded).


The ancient Olympics ended in AD 394 when the Emperor Theodosius I banned all pagan festivals as part of his campaign to impose Christianity as the state religion of Rome. For 1,500 years the Olympic games were consigned to history. In 1894, however, Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that led to the inaugural modern Olympic Games in Athens two years later.

According to the official website of the modern Olympics, the winners in 1896 were crowned with an olive wreath (echoing the ancient Games) and received a silver medal. Runners-up received a laurel branch and a copper or bronze medal. In the second Games, in 1900, most winners received cups or trophies instead of medals. Four years later, in the 1904 Olympic Games held in St Louis, the first gold (shown right), silver and bronze medals were awarded for first, second, and third place.


The suggestion that medals were awarded at the ancient Olympic Games is simply not true. The mix-up probably arises because both the ancient and the inaugural modern Games awarded olive wreaths to the winners. Yet it was only the latter that presented silver and bronze medals as prizes. It seems that the Bargain Hunt production team mistakenly conflated the ancient and modern prizes together. Hopefully, any confusion caused can now be dispelled.

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