Crafting Olympic Medals with Chemistry

Olympic-Medal_397When an athletes stands on the podium to receive their Olympic Medal, they’ve worked long and hard to get to that place. The creation of the medal hanging around their neck also goes through an arduous process, but instead of blood, sweat, and tears, this journey is made with chemistry.

Learn more about the basic chemistry behind Olympic medals.

Articles by Kenny Morley

Swimsuit Technology Breaks Records (Basic)

Fluid Dynamics


Swimsuits developed by Speedo in 2007 provided some of the fastest competition lap times ever recorded. Countless hours of research was conducted at the University of Nottingham to discover the best ways to reduce drag.

Drag works on the same principle as air resistance except drag is produced by contact between a solid and liquid rather than a solid and air. Drag affects an object in two ways, form drag and skin friction. Form drag is how the shape of the body affects water slow and skin friction is the act of the skin to grip the water and not allow the body to move freely.

Most world class swimmers have a technically correct stroke and are in the best shape possible. A race can come down to a thousandth of a second, so outside factors, such as swimsuits, play a major role in who wins or loses. The new swimsuits produced by Speedo are able to reduce drag by up to 5%. The researchers at Nottingham were able to use computer models and tests using swimmers to identify the major areas where form drag and skin friction affected drag most. To reduce form drag, a heavier material was used to help compress the body angles and create a straighter form. In areas with high skin friction, a lightweight, smooth material is used that allow the water to flow freely over the body.

The new suit broke 21 world records between 2007-2008 and broke 43 records at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. After the 2009 season the suits were banned by the Fédération Internationale de Natation  (FINA) which is the sport’s governing body. FINA cited the need to create a level playing field when banning the suit. Even though the suit has been banned, it shows the importance of drag and the science of fluid dynamics in the sport of swimming.

By: Kenny Morley, Ohio State University 



Lau, C. (2012).  High Tech Swimsuit Ban – Claudia Lau E-Portfolio. Retrieved from tech-swimsuit-ban-promote-sportsmanship-or-inhibit-science-innovation

Wong, K. (2012). Full Body Swimsuit Now Banned for Professional Swimmers. Retrieved from


Crafting Olympic Medals with Chemistry (Basic)

The Olympic Medal is one of the most recognizable symbols in all of sports. Thousands of athletes strive to earn one of these medals every 2 years at either the winter games or the summer games.

An Olympic medal must be made to some very exact specifications. Contrary to popular belief, an Olympic Gold Medal is mostly silver. Both the silver and gold medals are 92.5% pure silver while the gold medals are plated with 6 grams of gold. All medals must be at least 3 millimeters thick and 60 millimeters in diameter.

In order to produce Olympic Medals of the highest quality, extremely pure base metals must be used. When metal is mined, the rock, called ore, that contains the metal must be removed. This can be done in huge furnaces. Most of the ore used to produce Olympic Medals comes from ore mined at Kennecott Utah copper mine! When the ore melts, the desired metal detaches from the ore and sinks. The undesirable materials such as rock and other minerals, called slag, floats to the top and is removed. What is left is a purer form of the metal. This process is repeated multiple times depending on the desired metal purity.

For the London 2012 Games, 4700 medals were created. To do this, a die must be created that will imprint the desired design onto the medal. To create a die, an artist must first sketch out the design. Next, an oversized plaster design is created. A computer instrument is able to read this plaster design and this information can be sent to a computer controlled engraver that will produce the correctly sized die.

After the designs have been imprinted, the future gold medals will undergo an electroplating process to gain their 6 grams of gold. To plate the medals, they are placed in a bath of sulfuric acid with a plate of pure gold. The medals and the gold are connected to a battery or other power source to create an electric current. When the current is activated, the medals act as the cathode (negative) while the gold acts as the anode (positive). When this occurs, electrons from the pure gold are attracted to the medals and move through the acid solution and plate onto the medals. Each medal, from oven to the end of electroplating, takes approximately ten hours to produce.Once the die is created, the purified metal must be sent through a 750 degree oven to be softened. Without this softening process, the design would not transfer from the die to the metal. When the metal reaches its desired temperature, it is cut to the correct size and sent to the die press. This press imprints the design onto the metal at a tremendous pressure.

By: Kenny Morley, Ohio State University 


Electrochemistry Encyclopedia. (2012, June 25). Electroplating. Retrieved from

What Are Olympic Medals Made Of? July 13, 2012. Retrieved from