An Introduction to Collecting
Olympic Participation Medals
The Olympic Games have long been recognized as the most popular and inspirational sporting and cross-cultural event in the world. In fact, its international viewership easily exceeds that of the Super Bowl, NBA Championship and World Series combined! It's hardly surprising that collecting Olympic memorabilia has become a sizeable industry with an active international marketplace. Hobbyists, investors and dealers actively trade lapel pins, stamps, torches, coins, uniforms, flags and of course, medals.
The modern Olympic Games began in 1896, in Athens, the site of the ancient games. From that first event to the most recent Olympics in Salt Lake City, there have been a total of forty-three Olympic venues (24 Summer & 19 Winter). The awarding of prize medals for winners in the Olympics is one of the best known features of these modern Games. The Winners' Medals (or Prize Medals) are quite scarce and highly collectible, and it is not uncommon to see them trade at auction for thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars. In addition to the Winners Medals, at all but one of the Olympic Games, the host countries awarded Commemorative Medals to the athletes, judges and officials who participated in the Games. While not widely known to the general public, these Medals, commonly called Olympic Participation Medals, are staples of the Olympic memorabilia collectors' community.
It is, in fact, an obligation of the host country to make and then distribute these medals to all participants in the Games. The Olympic Charter, maintained by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), specifies the protocol to be followed by the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games. This Charter requires that Participation Medals be awarded, and that the copyright for the medals is to be owned by the IOC (See Appendix C). According to the Charter, once the Medals have been struck, all dies and moulds are given to the IOC, and an accurate accounting of the number struck, including proofs, is also prepared.
Each Participation Medal is unique in design and they exist in various shapes and sizes. The vast majority of these Medals are composed of bronze. Some issues are more appealing than others based solely upon their aesthetic appeal and artistic design. Regardless, the vast majority of issues are very affordable (compared to the Winner's Medals); about half of the Medals can be acquired for less than $400 each at current levels, while most of the other half are valued closer to $1,000.
After nearly three years of research into the trading patterns of these Participation Medals, we believe they are an undervalued collectible and feel confident in recommending their immediate acquisition (at current price levels). Certainly, our extensive experience in the U.S. rare coin market played a major role in determining the viability of collecting and investing in these Medals.
We relied upon similar characteristics between the medal (exonumia) and rare numismatic markets. For example, we used original mintage figures, estimated survival rates and current population figures to compare various US coins with Olympic Medal issues. We also considered (albeit with a significant degree of subjectivity) current and projected demand for each of these areas. In most instances, the Olympic Participation Medals (OPM's) appear very undervalued. Below, we discuss our findings.
FACTORS AFFECTING SUPPLY
In each of the modern Olympics (since 1896) with the exception of the Paris Games in 1900, the host country issued an official Participation Medal. The mintage figures range from 700 to 60,000 pieces. As we've mentioned, these special Medals were presented by the Olympic Committee from the host country to each athlete, judge and official attending the Games.
Representing one's country at the Olympics by participating in some official capacity (as an athlete or perhaps as an invited judge) is considered an honor and a thrill few of us can imagine. For the vast majority of athletes, a Participation Medal is the closest thing to a Winners' Medal they'll ever see. It's a tangible reminder of their achievement and a source of pride. It is certainly understandable that those people who receive a Participation Medal in recognition of their attendance would not easily part with it - at least not for the few hundred dollars most of them are currently worth. This has limited the number of Olympic Participation Medals sold to collectors on the secondary market by athletes and officials.
As the Olympic Games have grown is size, so has the number of official Participation Medals issued by each host country. For example, it was reported that only 4,000 OPM's were distributed at the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Games while it is estimated that nearly 60,000 Participation Medals were minted for the 1996 Atlanta Games. Traditionally, the Winter Games offered fewer events and had fewer athletes, coaches and officials in attendance than the typical Summer Games. Consequently, the Participation Medals from the Winter venues are typically more scarce and expensive than their Summer counterparts.
Again, the vast majority of recipients have no interest in selling their Medals (at any price). However, to an assistant weightlifting coach from Bulgaria, $200 for his Medal may represent food and shelter for months!
Unfortunately, there is no accurate source (like a Population Report, etc.) to indicate how many Participation Medals from a certain venue actually exist in the marketplace. The primary sources for OPM's are occasional appearances at auction and dealers specializing in Olympic memorabilia. Our firm's growing involvement in this field has lead to additional contacts and sources as well.
FACTORS AFFECTING DEMAND
Olympic Participation Medals are neat. Really neat. The vast majority depict beautiful, unique designs by well known artists and sculptors representing each venue. Part of their aesthetic appeal is the largeness of these Medals compared to legal tender coinage. The typical OPM measures 60 mm (a little over 2 1/4 inches) and weighs an average of 100 grams. By comparison, a U.S. Silver dollar measures 26.7 mm and weighs approximately 38 grams.
One of the most interesting and enticing aspects when analyzing "demand" for OPM's is not only researching current collector interest, but also predicting the potentially huge increase in demand which could be sparked with some effective marketing and education. The key to successful investing, of course, is to take a position in the market before OPM's become more widely recognized as an undervalued collectible.
In numismatic parlance, a "Medal" is defined as a coin-like round of metal made in honor of a person or event. Not authorized as legal tender and not intended to circulate for monetary value. It is also not made to a recognized weight or fineness. Although a somewhat popular collectible, Medals are often considered a bit esoteric by the larger numismatic community and do not have the kind of widespread appeal and demand that legal tender coinage enjoys.
As far as Medals Series go, Olympic Participation Medals have long enjoyed a very active trading environment. This has continued despite a relative paucity of promotion and marketing. One reason that OPM's are heavily collected is that they form a very logical set. After purchasing one Medal, the buyer is immediately attracted to the goal of completing the collection: getting one OPM from every Olympic Games, or the complete set of 43 OPM's.
Unlike most other Medals, the majority of today's OPM collectors were introduced through their interest in sports memorabilia - not as an extension of their interest in numismatics. Given the traditional popularity of numismatics and the growing interest in sports memorabilia, we feel confident that Olympic Participation Medals already will find a solid and enthusiastic duel collector base. Most collectors just need the right introduction.
One of the most intriguing and attractive aspects of OPM's is that the current (and projected) demand is international. It is easy to introduce the Set of OPM's to a Canadian collector by selling him the Medals from the 1976 Montreal and 1988 Calgary Games. By it's very nature, the Olympics appeals to a worldwide audience. With increasing interest from countries such as Japan, Great Britain and Germany, a solid base of demand is forming. Simply put, we like the fundamentals.
To reiterate, the major factors driving demand are as follows:
- Large Format and Attractive Designs of Medals
- Logical Collectible Set
- International Appeal Initiated through Region Interest
- Interest from Sports and Numismatic Collectible Fields
PRICING & GRADING FACTORS
One of the inherent problems associated with any marketplace still in its infancy is a lack of accurate pricing information. Our experience and research reveals there can be a wide variance in pricing from dealer to dealer and from auction to auction. However, we believe we can use these disparities to our clients' benefit.
Unlike more mature collectible areas (such as certified rare coins), Olympic Participation Medals lack true "market-makers" who maintain significant inventories or legitimate buy / sell (bid / ask) spreads for each OPM. Remember, most dealers of OPM's are Olympic memorabilia people, not coin dealers.
Unlike rare coins, there is no standardized grading scale, let alone an independent third-party certification. Most OPM dealers and enthusiasts use a subjective scale which encompasses only a handful of grades:
- Mint Condition (Usually reserved for the later issues that are still in their original boxes)
- Uncirculated (No real signs of wear)
- About Uncirculated (Slight wear)
- Very / Extremely Fine (Definite signs of wear or slight damage)
- Fine (Moderate to heavy wear / damaged)
- Poor (Badly Damaged and / or Extreme Wear)
More to the point, the grading system varies (sometimes dramatically) from one dealer or auction house to the next. The savvy buyer can often "cherry pick" outstanding uncirculated examples and pay the same price as one would for a Fine example of the same issue. We believe it is safe to assume that the OPM market will eventually adopt a more recognized grading standard - most likely one with similar criteria currently used for legal tender coinage. As a consequence, we expect to see greater price differences between higher and lower quality pieces. Buying quality examples now for small premiums should pay off in the future, when the number of collectors and their knowledge base have grown.
Trading a product which enjoys demand from an international as well as national base is certainly a benefit. However, historically, marketing to (and trading with) an international clientele has been a daunting and complicated task. We believe it is simple, inherent problems like dealing in an international marketplace that has kept products like Olympic Participation Medals from reaching their potential.
The World Wide Web is changing all that. It has never been easier to trade product and information with international dealers and collectors. We expect the internet to be a major catalyst in promoting OPM's and allowing this market to reach a more mature level.