An Introduction to Olympic Coin Collecting
Millions of enthusiasts around the world collect coins. Why coins rather than something else, you may ask? In times of world stress coins made of gold and silver were a conduit to safety, and precious metals were safe refuges in times of inflation and currency devaluation. So gold and silver coins were cash. And if the coins were sought after and rare they took on additional value attracting the interest of investors.
If you are a collector, coins can be an interesting option. To begin, there are certain things you should look for. Usually something important is being commemorated and the collector wants to remember that event and perhaps research the circumstances that led up to it. The item he wishes to collect should be rare as this makes it more meaningful and improves the possibility of future value. Furthermore, there should be other collectors sharing the same interest making it easier for you to find any item you might be missing.
Olympic coins have all of these characteristics – and more! Here is a bit of background on their origin and meaning.
The minting and use of coins go back many millennia, however the reasons for their issuance are different than today. A long time ago when individuals began issuing coins, their value was determined by the coin’s precious metal content. In other words the wealthy would strike a silver coin whose intrinsic value was equal to its purchasing power. Today this is no longer the case. Legal tender is merely an “IOU” from the issuing authority, typically a government.
This brings us to an Olympic story and the very first Olympic coin of which we are aware. In the year 525 B.C. in Ellis, Greece (where Ancient Olympia is located), a coin was struck in silver to celebrate the achievement of a victorious athlete on the sacred fields of Olympia. One side of this coin depicts a flying eagle, a bird sacred to Zeus, grasping a snake. On the other side is a winged Nike, goddess of victory and messenger of Zeus, descending from the heavens and carrying in her right hand the Olympic victory wreath – the reward for winning athletes and the highest honor to which any Greek could aspire.
This initiative of paying tribute to an Olympic champion became a tradition in ancient times and continued until the demise of the Ancient Olympic Games in 393 A.D.
In 1894 a group of visionaries led by Pierre de Coubertin formed an organization called the International Olympic Committee whose purpose was to restart the Olympic Games. They succeeded with the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, to be followed by Games conducted every four years.
The tradition of issuing Olympic coins was rekindled when Helsinki was awarded the 1940 Olympic Games. The Finns had planned to be the first to reintroduce modern Olympic coins. Unfortunately World War II caused the cancellation of both the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games and, of course, any coin initiative. The Finns, playing their cards close to their chests, waited for the next opportunity to issue Olympic coins. They did not have to wait long for right after the London 1948 Games,, the first after WW II, Helsinki was awarded the 1952 Olympic Games.
The Mint of Finland dusted off its original plan and issued a silver 500 Markkaa coin in 1951, followed by a second coin with the same design in 1952.. These were circulating coins, that is, coins intended for everyday use and issued for their face value. Today these coins are rare and much sought after by collectors.
Three Olympic Games would pass before Olympic coins were once again issued, this time by two countries, Austria for the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck ,and Japan for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. Austria introduced a new concept that was adopted by many countries in later years but that is another story.
Bob has been directly involved with Olympic coin programs since 1976 as the vice president of the Royal Canadian Mint, the IOC Director of Olympic coin programs and is still active today as the Advisor to the IOC on Olympic coins.