Now that gold, silver and bronze medals have begun to be awarded at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games, there is a good chance that you’ll see the athletes putting them into their mouths as they attempt to take a bite out of them. In fact, the act of biting down on the recently won medal has become such a common event that McDonald’s even has a commercial airing which highlights this practice. That begs the question, what is the history behind this tradition?
The act of biting down on a coin seems to be a relic of earlier times when coins were actually made of pure gold and silver. Biting down on a coin was a quick and easy way to confirm whether it was real or counterfeit. Since both gold and silver are relatively soft metals, and tooth enamel is fairly strong, biting down on a gold coin would leave a mark which would confirm whether or not the coin was real. If the coin was made of another metal, or a mixture of gold and other metals, it would be much more difficult to leave a mark confirming that the coin was counterfeit.
Since Olympic medals are no longer made of pure gold, this isn’t the reason that athletes place their awards into their mouths. We also all know that athletes aren’t spontaneously deciding to bite down on their medals. The real reason that this continues to happen is due to the insistence of photographers.
The question then becomes, why would photographers want the athletes to bite down on their medals? The answer is quite easy to understand. It’s a photographer’s job to take the most compelling photograph they can of each athlete with their medal. One way to create a unique and interesting photo is to get the athletes to do something different than simply showing off their medal.
Since there is only so much that an athlete can do with a medal, most standard medal winning photographs have the medal around the athlete’s neck, or the athlete holding the medal next to their face. Having the athletes pretend to take a bite out of the medal creates a much more “fun” photo which can be worth more to the photographer. For this reason, the photographers usually will yell at the athletes to bite on the medal during the photo session in hopes that a few of them do, enabling them to get an interesting shot to sell or use for their publication.
Another variation of this that you’re bound to see during the Olympic games is the athletes kissing their medals. Again, this is usually not a spontaneous reaction from the medalist for the win, but it’s done because the photographers are shouting and encouraging them to kiss it so they can get a more interesting photo.