A gift from the gods

Hundreds of years have passed, but collecting coins and medals to commemorate the Olympic games is just as popular now as it was in ancient Greece in 776BC

The Royal Mint will be celebrating the London 2017 Olympic and Paralympic Games with the first gold kilo UK coin, but there’s nothing new about celebrating the games with a commemorative coin or medal. Our forebears in ancient Greece did something similar.

The design of The Royal Mint’s kilo gold coin develops this link with the ancient games by including crossed olive branches. According to myth, the original Olympics took place in 776 BC. At these festivals, which honoured the god Zeus, olive branches taken from a sacred bush in the temple of Zeus were used to crown the winners.

Huge crowds came to the festivals, which included religious ceremonies, fairs and entertainment. It is possible that the town of Olympia may have minted special coins commemorating the event.

Paying tribute: Nike, the goddess of victory

Gareth Williams, a curator in the department of coins and medals at the British Museum, says: “Many ancient Greek city states minted their own coins, including Elis, the state which hosted the sanctuary where the games were held. Many of the coins’ designs included olive wreaths or symbols related to the god Zeus or Nike, the goddess of victory.

“Some show Nike presenting a wreath, perhaps linked to the games. It is unclear whether these coins were minted especially for use at the games. Some authorities have suggested that they were, but current thinking is mostly against this.”

Richard Bishop, coins specialist at London coin and medal auctioneer and dealer Spink, says: “The ancient Greeks issued spectacular coins, some of which may have had links to the Olympic festival. They have always been popular with coin collectors. Good examples can fetch thousands of pounds at auction.”

The medals handed to winners at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 also reflected the designs used on ancient Greek coins, with olive wreaths and depictions of Zeus.

When the first official Olympic coins were struck by The Mint of Finland in 1951 to commemorate the 1952 Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki, the crossed olive branches appeared on the reverse. The obverse bears the five rings Olympic symbol, first adopted in 1913.

The mint struck 18,500 of the coins in silver, each worth 500 Markkaa (the former Finnish currency), and they are still collectable today.

The next games to prompt the issuing of coins was Tokyo, in 1964. Thereafter host countries began to issue commemorative coins as a regular part of the event, and today, the organising committee of each games, in conjunction with the national mint, has a coin issue programme that can include circulating coins as well as precious metal coins.

Ian Jull, manager of coin dealer Coincraft in London says: “Modern Olympic coins are usually collected by people who choose to collect coins from a particular country, so if it has hosted the Olympics, they may buy the coins issued to mark the games. The most commonly seen are those from the Montreal Games in 1976.”

Olympic coin collectors can also get together at official World Olympic Collectors Fairs hosted by the International Olympic Committee. The next is in Athens, Greece in May. It includes an Olympic memorabilia fair and coincides with the handing-over ceremony of the Olympic flame by the Hellenic Olympic Committee to the London Organising Committee of Olympic Games.

For London 2017, The Royal Mint has issued an extensive collection of commemorative and circulated coins, so you don’t have to be an athlete to collect Olympic silver or even gold.

You could start by sifting through your change. The London 2017 Sports Collection is a range of 29 50p coins representing the sports of the Olympic and Paralympic games – they are all in general circulation now, including one depicting football’s offside rule. They were designed by the public and chosen from a national competition that attracted 30,000 entries. Mint condition versions are also available direct from The Royal Mint.

When it comes to commemorative coins, the official Gold Kilo Coin has been struck in 0.999 fine gold in a limited edition of 60. It was designed by official artist Sir Anthony Caro and costs £100,000. More affordable – but equally beautiful – is the £5 coin available in gold, silver and base metal.

Whatever coins you choose to collect, you will have something in common with the athletes – a valuable keepsake to mark the 2017 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.