From precious metals to precious medals: Where did Tokyo's gold, silver and bronze come from?

Posted at 6:39 PM, Aug 05, 2021

You may not realize it, but you are carrying the stuff Olympic medals are made of in your pocket or purse. Gold, silver and bronze are in most of the cell phones we use. They may also be found on tablets, laptops and personal computers.

Some of the precious metals found in old electronic devices and now hanging around the necks of Olympic medal winners.

As part of Game’s sustainability plan, organizers of the Tokyo Olympic Games launched the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project, a plan to collect donated personal electronics and harvest their metals to make medals. From April 2017 to March 2019, organizers collected nearly 80,000 tons of small electronic devices, including mobile phones. From these devices were harvested approximately:

  • 70 pounds of gold
  • 7,700 pounds of silver
  • 4,900 pounds of bronze, which is an alloy of mostly copper

SEE MORE: Plastic podiums, recycled medals, cardboard beds part of Tokyo Games’ sustainability plan

The precious metals were used to make the nearly 500 medals that will be awarded during the Games. Japanese organizers were inspired by those at the Vancouver Games, who used small amounts of recycled products in their medals.

The recycled medals are part of an effort to reduce the Olympic Games carbon footprint. Other initiatives include using renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels at the Athlete’s Village, shuttling people around in electric vehicles and, of course, the now famous cardboard beds.

For medal winners at the Games, where the gold or silver used in their medals came from may not matter all that much. Athletes will still wear them, kiss them, pose with them and, yes, bite them, usually at the urging of photographers.

“It’s become an obsession with the photographers,” Olympic historian David  Wallechinsky told CNN in a 2012 interview. “I think they look at it as an iconic shot, as something that you can probably sell. I don’t think it’s something the athletes wouldn't probably do on their own.”  

Still Olympic organizers saw a need to remind athletes on Twitter that their medals are not edible.

“We just want to officially confirm that the #Tokyo2020 medals are not edible!” the post reads. “Our medals are made from material recycled from electronic devices donated by the Japanese public. So, you don't have to bite them... but we know you still will.”

View social media post:

SEE MORE: Athletes put their cardboard beds to the test in Tokyo