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Wait, what?! Gold medals aren't made of gold?

  • London Olympics' medals are the largest ever made
  • Gold medal isn't made of gold, bronze medal isn't bronze
  • Athletes aren't the only ones who had a long road to London
Wait, what?! Gold medals aren't made of gold?

The silver, silver and copper Olympic medals.

First things first: Gold medals are not made of gold.

Let that sink in for a second. The iconic Olympic gold medal is not a gold medal at all.

So what is it made of? How about silver, of all things? A smidge of gold is mixed in and a thin layer is added to coat the surface, but for all practical purposes Olympic champions are awarded silver medals in shiny gold casing.

At current gold prices, if each medal were made entirely of the stuff, they would be worth about $20,000 each.

But before we go poking around trying to find out where silver medals come from, let's hit the fact farm: The gold medal is comprised of 92.5% silver, just 1.34% -- or six grams -- of gold and the rest is made of copper. And funny thing about copper: It also makes up 97% of the bronze medal.

So to review: The gold medal is silver, the silver medal is silver and the bronze medal is copper.

Of course, minute as the amount may be, those six grams of gold are still enough to cleave the winner from the losers. Six grams feels like a ton if you're Ryan Lochte on the second place stand looking up at Michael Phelps while "The Star-Spangled Banner" fills up the aquatics center. Think he cares that the jewelry around their necks is 92.5% identical?

Almost all 4,700 medals that will be awarded during the Olympic and Paralympic Games began their respective roads to glory (and display cases ad infinitum) from the same place: Utah. Specifically, the Kennecott Utah Copper Mine outside of Salt Lake City. The raw materials for some medals were also mined from Mongolia's Oyu Tolgoi project. In all, eight tons were extracted to produce the 400-gram medals, which are the largest in Olympics history.

The iron ore extracted from the mines was filtered and smelted before being refined to reveal the gold and silver hidden inside. Such humble beginnings. It's at this point that the precious metals really begin turning into precious medals.

The silver, copper and (tiny bits of) gold were then shipped off to be pressed into their familiar circular shape, as ordered by the medal standards set by the International Olympic Committee. Then things get decidedly British.

The Royal Mint won the contract to create the 2012 Summer Olympic medals, so Britain's hometown Games will feature homemade medals. They were inscribed with the Greek goddess Nike on one side and an "architectural expression, a metaphor for the modern city" including "an image of radiating energy that represents the athletes’ efforts" on the flip side, according to the London Games' official website. That's what they call it.

You, however, may choose to call it something like "an awkward explosion of distracting lines anchored only the Games' crooked-number logo." You may choose to call it that. You know, if you want.

The medals were officially handed over to the Tower of London on July 2, where they remain locked up right now, sharing space with the ghosts of Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. The medals will be guarded at the Tower until they're awarded at the Victory Ceremonies.

The first set of gold, silver and bronze (or silver, silver and copper) medals of the 2012 Summer Olympics will be presented on July 28 at the men's 10-meter pistol and women's 10-meter air rifle events.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonFromHLN

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