It’s been something of a fad for quite some time and past Olympic Games, but apparently only now as TV viewers look at the spectacle in Rio, that the habit has been noticed by the mainstream and questioned. What everyone is wondering is: Why exactly are those pictures and footages of medal- winning Olympic athletes biting down on their hard-earned medals like they were chocolate candies in gold foil?
Believe it or not, this gesture grew out of practices during the Gold Rush days of the 19 th and early 20 th Centuries, as many a historical trivia website like Today I Found Out could tell you. Prospectors digging gold out of the ground and from the cliff-sides, or panning along flowing water, needed a quick and improvised means of testing whether the bright yellow chunk they discovered in the soil or the streams was the precious metal they were looking for: Gold. And they followed a simple fact that they knew about gold’s physical properties.
Gold is one of the softest metals in the world. Any piece of gold, when subjected to a sharp enough edge with enough pressure, would be left with an indentation. This property of the valuable metal is old knowledge; gold bars salvaged out of sunken pirate ships often carried marks indicating that they have been hit by a sword, a sharp test devised by raiders of the sailing age.
So prospectors needed only to know that true gold would be marred when hit hard enough by a knife blade…or bitten with a steady pressure. This was simple enough to differentiate between gold and pyrite rock, aka “fool’s gold”. Teeth are harder than gold, but pyrite is harder and bites will not leave a mark, to say less of risking damage to the teeth.
The bite test can also be used on coins – and medals – to see it they are all solid gold or simply gold plated over a cheap metal. Anyone who has watched classic cartoons say by Warner Bros., might recall Bugs Bunny biting a medal so hard that he bent it at an angle.
But people who have seen the medal-biting Olympians on TV or the web would have figured out that they’re not biting hard enough. In fact, some female athletes may be doing the bit rather demurely.
Well, as International Society of Olympic Historians President David Wallechinsky can tell you, it’s just something Olympic photographers really want to show, to a rather obsessive degree even. “I think they look at it as an iconic shot, as something that you can probably sell,” He says. “I don’t think it’s something the athletes would probably do on their own.”
Gold medals for the Rio Olympics are only 1.34 percent gold, plated around recycled sterling silver. In fact, the whole setup of a gold medal would cost only $564. The $25,000 paycheck all Olympic medalists receive is worth so much more.
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