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It's Not Really Gold It's Just 'Priceless'

Olympic medals' new design features sports icons

Olympic gold isn't quite that. Chip away at one of the new gold medals and what you'll find is silver.

On face value the medal is worth around $68, largely due to the six grams of gold that covers its sterling core.

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But for US softball player Lisa Fernandez, it's nothing less than priceless: "We have one thing in mind, and that's to win the gold. Going to the Olympics isn't enough," she says.

The tradition of giving prizes to Olympic winners started with awarding olive wreaths at the seventh Olympiad in 748 B.C.

The sacred wreath was coveted by such legendary champions as the wrestler Milo, who it is said, once ate an entire bull for lunch. When Diagaros won an event, a friend advised, "Die, Diagaros, for thou hast nothing short of divinity to desire."

Medals as a symbol of Olympic triumph were not introduced until the 1928 Amsterdam Games. Until then, various awards were given including wreaths, silver cups, ancient vases, certificates, or appreciative handshakes. (Amsterdam also started the tradition of the Olympic torch and the participation of women in track and field.)

For the past several months, inside the brick 19th-century factory of Reed & Barton in Taunton, Mass., some 50 workers handcrafted 1,838 medals for the Atlanta Games

Silversmiths made steel dies from clay casts, and stamped blank metal disks between them. Then they dipped, buffed, polished, and finally shipped the medals in handcrafted wooden boxes to Atlanta: 604 gold, 604 silver, and 630 bronze. (There are more bronze medals because in judo and boxing both losing semifinalists receive a medal for third place.)

The medals were designed by Malcolm Grear Designers of Providence, R.I., after three months of brainstorming sessions.

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"Like in all Olympics, on the obverse side [of the medal] we have reinterpreted the same elements designed by Giuseppe Cassioli for the Amsterdam games," says Malcolm Grear. "But for the first time we have introduced new elements on the reverse side."

That side displays the Atlanta Games torch trademark and will feature one of the 31 pictograms illustrating a particular sport (such as archery, shown above). On the outer edge, the name of a particular sport or event is engraved.

"But the biggest change is a customized 'look-of-the-Games,' " says Mr. Grear referring to the quilted leaves. "It represents the South as well as people of all nations coming together, which is the spirit of the Olympics."

The observe side bears the traditional image of seated "Victory" holding a wreath above her head, and a frock of palm leaves over her arms. A horse-drawn chariot with two male figures, the Coliseum, an amphora, the Olympic rings, and the words "Atlanta 1996" and "XXVI Olympiad" complete the image.

Whatever the form of an Olympic prize - an olive wreath, a trophy, a trinket, or a medal - athletes have coveted Olympic glory with a passion rarely matched in other sporting events.

Some would do anything for it.

The emperor Nero cleverly invented events on the spot and, to his lasting glory - and to no one's surprise - won every one of them.

Others dared challenge the rules: In ancient Games where nudity was the uniform of the day, women who peeked at the young male athletes risked being pitched from a nearby cliff.

Legend has it that a Macedonian woman named Belisiche dressed as a man and won the prized chariot race, one event in which competitors were required to wear clothes.

A hundred years ago, Harvard University gave James Connoly a choice: Either continue school, or participate in the Olympics. Mr. Connoly grabbed the next boat to Athens and won the triple jump, becoming the first winner of the modern Olympics.

In Atlanta, there will be no Neros. However, there could be Belisiches and Connolys. And one thing is certain: There will be 1,838 medals for the estimated 10,000 athletes. Among the hopefuls will be Lisa Fernandez.

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