How Paralympic medals have evolved

The medals awarded at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games are a physical representation of the years of training, dedication and discipline required to complete at the highest levels of sport. As no two Games have been the same, their medals likewise are unique to the event at which they were presented.

Participants at the first Stoke Mandeville Games were sometimes presented with certificates or trophies rather than medals, but medals have been the main physical prize of every Paralympic Games since they began in Rome in 1960.

Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann at the Stoke Mandeville Games 1955/6 prize giving ceremony. Image courtesy of Margaret Anne Audous.

Margaret Maughan

Margaret Maughan's gold medal in archery from the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960. Image courtesy of Margaret Maughan.

Design - Imagery

The design of Paralympic medals is at the discretion of the host nation. In some instances, they have featured images that link to the country’s heritage, traditions or geographical location; the medals for the Sydney Games in 2000 featured the Sydney Opera House, whilst the medals for the Winter Paralympics in Sochi in 2014 featured a patchwork design commonly found in Russian folklore.

Isabel Newstead and Deanna Coates holding their Sydney 2000 Summer Games medals

Isabel Newstead and Deanna Coates holding their Sydney 2000 Paralympic medals.

The medals have also often included designs that represent the Paralympic Movement. For example, the medals awarded at the Tel Aviv Games in 1968 featured three interlocking wheels, which represented the three values of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF) of friendship, unity and sportsmanship.This motif can also be seen on the medals for Toronto in 1976, which featured the three wheels as part of a six-petal hexagonal design and at other Games until Seoul in 1988.

Three interlocking wheels design representing the three values of the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation

ISMWSF motif

The medals for these Games instead featured the five Tae-Geuks; the first official symbol of the Paralympic Games. These are traditional Korean designs and were in five different colours (like the five Olympic rings).Logo of the Paralympic Games with 5 Korean Tae-Geuks in 5 different colours used from 1988 until 1994

Tae-Geuks used on the Paralympic logo from 1988 to 1994. Image courtesy of the IPC.

In 1996, at the Atlanta Games, this motif was updated to include only three Tae-Geuks, which were said to represent mind, body and spirit. It could be argued that this motif more closely resembles the original three rings of the ISMWSF. This new design became the new emblem of the Paralympic Games and can be seen represented on medals until 2006, when it was updated to the current three 'Agitos' logo.Logo of the Paralympic Games

Agitos Paralympic logo. Image courtesy of the IPC.

The relevant Games mascot has also made an appearance in some of the medal designs. The Gomdoori mascot for the Seoul Games (1988) featured on the reverse side of their medals, and the 1998 Nagano mascot Parabbit featured 10 years later.

Illustration of the Gomdoori mascot for the 1988 Seoul Games Illustration of the mascot for the 1998 Nagano Paralympic Games

The 1988 Gomdoori and 1998 Parabbit Games mascots. Illustrations courtesy of the IPC.

The medals presented at the Rome Games in 1960 saw the introduction of unique medals for each different sport, where an image, or words, relevant to the specific event could be seen on the reverse. This design feature was adopted in later Games and has been seen on medals ever since.  

In most instances, medals have been circular in shape. However, the Vancouver Games broke with tradition and designed medals that were squarer, with rounded corners and an undulating surface. The nature of this design meant that no medal could be replicated exactly resulting in a unique medal for each athlete.

Design - Words

It is customary for medals to feature the name of the host city. They also sometimes feature inspirational quotes; the medals at the Toronto Games (1976) saw the words 'Everyone Wins' engraved above the design, and the Salt Lake City medals featured the words 'Mind Body Spirit', echoing the values of the three Tae-Geuks.

Design - Materials

The medals presented at the Beijing Games in 2008 were the first to feature a precious stone – jade - which can be seen separating the outer rim from the central design.

Bronze medal from the Beijing 2008 Games  Bronze medal from the Beijing 2008 Games

Bronze medals from the Beijing 2008 Games

The Rio Games in 2016 saw the first instance of recycled materials being used in the manufacture of the medals. The gold used in the gold medals was produced without the use of mercury, and 30% of the materials used in the silver and bronze medals was recycled. Similarly, half of the plastic used in the medal ribbons came from recycled sources, and the medal cases bear the Forest Stewardship Council certification mark. This requirement for a more sustainable approach to medal production can be seen in the preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Games. The Tokyo 2020 Medal Project aims to manufacture its medals from recycled electrical products, such as mobile phones. Their aim is for the medals to be 100% recycled; a first at either the Olympic or Paralympic Games.

Unique to the Paralympic Games

Unlike their Olympic counterparts, Paralympic medals have often featured braille as part of the design; the first instance of this was the Winter Games in 1976. The words in braille were usually the location and year of the Games. This sensory dimension was taken one step further at the Rio 2016 Games where each medal contained a rattle that made a different sound depending on whether it was inside a gold, silver or bronze medal.

Homemade medals

For those athletes who did receive medals at the early Stoke Mandeville Games, they were presented in small leather pouches that were designed and made by the patients themselves, some of whom participated in the Games at the time. One of these patients was Betty Green, who, from the age of 16, was paralysed from the waist down and received physiotherapy at Stoke Mandeville for 18 months. Similarly, patient George Brogan recalls that part of his occupation therapy included making medals for the first Games. From 1959, the medals were presented in hinged wooden boxes. It is possible that these were also made by the hospital patients.

Similarly, for the Tokyo Games in 1964, George Butler, an engineering instructor in the Occupational Therapy department associated with Stoke Mandeville, along with patients at the hospital, manufactured the medals from bars of brass. Butler then engraved them before coating them in gold, silver or bronze.

Hugh Stewart Mackenzies bronze medal for the table tennis mixed doubles from Tokyo 1964 GamesHugh Stewart Mackenzie's bronze medal for men's doubles table tennis at the Tokyo 1964 Games

References

  • https://www.paralympic.org/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/tokyo-1964/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/sydney-2000/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/sochi-2014/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/tel-aviv-1968/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/toronto-1976/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/seoul-1988/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/the-ipc-brand
  • https://www.paralympic.org/seoul-1988/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/nagano-1998/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/vancouver-2010/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/heidelberg-1972/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/beijing-2008/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/rio-2016/medals
  • https://tokyo2020.org/en/games/medals/project/
  • https://www.paralympic.org/toronto-1976/medals
  • https://www.paralympic.org/rio-2016/medals
  • https://pureportal.coventry.ac.uk/files/3976727/fromstoke1.pdf 
  • https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/11708274.obituary-betty-green-who-was-honoured-for-her-work-at-the-churchill-hospital/
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=0ac21727-4f97-4e61-a977-8c34f9c461ed
  • I.S. Brittain, From Stoke Mandeville to Stratford: A History of the Summer Paralympic Games, (Illinois, 2012), p.71