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Why do Olympic winners bite their medals?

There is a reason behind the athletes biting down on their medals in every photo.

Rio 2016 Biting Medal
The US Men's swimming team celebrate their 4x200m win at Rio 2016

Photo op after photo op, every single Olympic medal winner we’ve seen in recent times bites their medal. Michael Phelps has bitten so many that his winnings might come in handy for all those chipped teeth! Rafael Nadal is another champion who has been pictured repeatedly doing it. Jokes apart though, why do they do it?

Photographers like it

Several athletes wouldn’t do it if they weren't asked. Many of them are requested by paparazzi and press photographers at venues to pose exactly like that. According to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky – (he’s the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians) – “It has become an obsession with photographers.” In an interview with CNN during the London 2012 Olympic Games, Wallechinsky said photographers “...look at it as an iconic shot, as something that you can probably sell. I don’t think it’s something the athletes would probably do on their own.”

But there is a reason athletes in the past did it.

Historical connotations

The practice of biting down on medals dates back to when athletes wanted to ascertain the authenticity of their medals. It was used to confirm whether the metals were truly made of gold, a softer medal, or a ferrous compound named Pyrite, or Fool’s Gold, which superficially resembles gold due to its colour.

A bite down on gold would leave teeth marks – while fool’s gold, or any other imitation, would likely damage your teeth.

That isn’t really a useful indicator any more, though.

Not much gold in modern-day medals

The medals that have been handed out at the Olympics in recent years have only 1.34% gold. The rest is entirely sterling silver, and at Rio 2016, most of this silver is also recycled. They don’t come very cheap, though. Estimates put the actual ‘cost’ of a current Rio 2016 gold medal at the equivalent of INR 37,000 or US$550.

Winning athletes do not necessarily also win prize money; individual Olympic Federations award their athletes varying amounts for gold, silver and bronze medal wins, with Azerbaijan the top of that list.

American athletes who win gold receive $25,000 as prize money from their Olympic federation, while Indian gold winners receive the equivalent of $150,000, with $112,000  and $75,000 for silver and bronze, respectively.

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