To Restore Olympic Shine, Start with the Medals

Host cities have always sourced most of their Olympic gold, silver, and bronze from polluting mines

olympic atheletes biting their gold medals Photo courtesy US ArmyOlympic medals have never fully embodied the principle of respect for the environment that
is enshrined in the Olympic Charter.

The Sochi Games couldn’t have gone much better for Vladimir Putin. He has successfully used the prestige of the Olympics to bolster his reputation in Russia—all while blanketing concerns like gay rights, free speech and corruption under a layer of wet Sochi snow. (Though his intervention in Ukraine may dwarf all). For the reputation of the Olympics, however, the Sochi Games leave a mixed legacy. The world is now wondering whether the Olympics, a showcase for values like excellence and fair play, are as morally agnostic as they seem.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) can’t take back its decision to award the Winter Games to Putin. But if it’s smart, it will look for ways to restore to the Olympics some of the ethical shine that got lost in Sochi. Luckily, an option is available to the IOC that would be administratively simple and symbolically powerful: requiring that Olympic medals be made from recycled sources.

All the recent Olympic host cities, including Sochi, have awarded medals that are impressively original and the product of considerable hard work and thought. But for all the effort that goes into them, Olympic medals have never reflected the highest standards of social and environmental responsibility. And they’ve never fully embodied the principle of respect for the environment that is enshrined in the Olympic Charter. That is because host cities have always sourced most or all of their Olympic gold, silver, and bronze from polluting, industrial mines.

This is regrettable, because the toll taken by mining for gold and other metals is unmistakably heavy. Industrial mining destroys landscapes and creates stunning amounts of waste—at least 12 tons for the six grams of gold in every gold medal. Companies mining for metals dump about 180 million metric tons of toxic waste directly into rivers, lakes, and oceans every year—more than all the municipal waste dumped in U.S. landfills annually. Mining companies have also forcibly evicted communities, disrupted livelihoods and violated worker rights.

Most artisanal gold mining—the kind done by informal, small-scale producers—is no more responsible. Besides being riddled with troubling labor practices, like child labor, artisanal gold mining is fueling a deadly civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is also the leading global cause of mercury pollution.

All told, the human and environmental costs of mining, as currently practiced, are simply too high—which is why many environmentally responsible jewelers now obtain their precious metals from recycled sources. By using only metals from existing stocks, mostly from unused jewelry and discarded electronics, these jewelers are reducing the need for mining and making a statement about the importance of halting dirty mining practices.

Olympic organizers should do the same. The IOC already sets guidelines for the size, weight, and composition of Olympic medals. It should also require that some high percentage of every Olympic medal—we suggest 90 percent—come from recycled sources.

The symbolism of such a requirement would be powerful. Olympic medals are a time-honored symbol of merit, an embodiment of the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Olympic athletes “going for gold” would compete for medals that would be impeccable from a social and environmental standpoint. Winners would take home medals commensurate in quality with the loftiness of their athletic feats. And the objects at the very heart of the Olympics, the medals, would gain a new sparkle, restoring luster to the Olympic enterprise itself.

Beyond symbolism, the environmental benefits would be significant. At the Sochi Olympic and Paralympic Games, substituting recycled gold for the roughly 3 kilograms of gold used in the medals could have eliminated the production of more than 5,000 tons of toxic waste. Global awareness about the social and environmental costs of mining would rise, too—which could prompt real and lasting changes in mining practices.

Before long, it will be 2016 and the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro will be underway. Will the medals be made from the same dirty sources as always? Or will the medals, and the Olympic mission, shine brighter than they do now? Improving the sourcing of the medals won’t address every concern related to the staging of responsible Olympic events. But if there is any place to start, it’s with the medals.

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