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Coins of the Olympic Games

Illustration of Mount Fuji

Olympic Games are always a historical occasion, however, the ones held in Tokyo, Japan, seem to have particular historical significance due to war, pandemic and political turmoil that followed them in 1964 and 2020. Despite being rescheduled for 2021, the event retained the Tokyo 2020 name for marketing and branding purposes. This is the first time that the Olympic Games have been postponed and rescheduled, rather than cancelled. Therefore, for the occasion, we have decided to show you some interesting items from our collection, relating to the history of the Olympic Games. 


The Olympics were the most prestigious games of the Ancient Greek world. Held every four years, (a tradition which continues in today’s modern Olympics), cities from across the ancient world would send their finest athletes to compete in the various sporting competitions. The games varied across the centuries but included wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus and chariot races. King Philip II of Macedon (359-336 BC) was able to showcase his prowess, winning the prestigious chariot race on a number of occasions and helping to boost his kingdom’s image. So important were the ancient Olympic Games that huge efforts were made to keep them running, even during the many conflicts and numerous pandemics which plagued antiquity.  

A silver Hemidrachm from Olympia featuring Laureate head of Zeus facing right on obverse and F-A, Thunderbolt, all within an olive wreath on reverse.
A silver Hemidrachm from Olympia featuring the portrait of Zeus. The reverse depicts a thunderbolt – Zeus’ legendary weapon of choice. Minted c. 256-240 BC.

The games were held at Olympia, in the Greek region of Elis, on the Peloponnese. The Sanctuary at Olympia was home to the great Statue of Zeus – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The huge ivory and gold statue stood in a colossal temple. The coins of Olympia are some of the most admired from the ancient world. They were struck each Olympiad, and bore designs relating to Zeus and his wife, Hera. The coins bear portraits of both deities, as well as eagles – the main animal associated with the king of the gods. Foreign currency was not accepted in Olympia during the games – visitors from across the Greek world were forced to exchange their currency for the special coinage, to be spent during the festivities. The authorities would make a profit using this method, and the guests would have been able to take their Olympian coins away to serve as portable memories of the games. Given the difficulties and expense of travel in the ancient world, a visit to the Olympic Games would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for so many Greeks – it seems likely the beautiful Olympian coins would have been cherished. 

Silver Hemidrachm coin. Obverse: Head of Hera facing right, wearing stephane. Reverse: Eagle standing right on rock, wings closed and head left.
Another Silver Hemidrachm from Olympia, this time depicting a portrait of Hera, the queen of the gods. Minted c. 356-352 BC.

Olmpic medals

The designs of the iconic Olympic medals have varied greatly since the re-institution of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Summer Games medals are thought to be more consistent in design and sizing and it was thought they should feature a building of more Greek ‘background’. The 2004 Games in Athens were followed by the controversy around the medal’s design due to the use of the somewhat irrelevant Roman Colosseum on the medals. The medals of the Winter Olympic Games never had a unified design, but regularly feature snowflakes and the event where the medal was won.  

At the first modern Olympics in 1896, gold medals were not awarded. Instead, the winners were given a silver medal and an olive branch, while runners-up received a laurel branch and a copper or bronze medal. In 1900, most winners received cups or trophies instead of medals. The custom of the sequence of gold, silver, and bronze for the first three places was instituted at the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, USA. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has retroactively issued gold, silver and bronze medals to the three best-placed athletes in each event of the 1896 and 1900 Games. 

London played host to the Olympic Games in 1948. It was a boon for Post-War Britain and an opportunity for friendly competition in the shadow of the most devastating conflict in human history. The design of the winner’s medals were much the same as those that had come before, struck from classically inspired dies designed by Prof. Cassiole. The commemorative medals for the event were produced by John Pinches ltd; a prominent London Medallist and, incidentally, a competitive rower. The participation medal featured a four-horse chariot, with a view of the Palace of Westminster on the reverse, and the inscription ‘XIV OLYMPIAD LONDON 1948’, with the Olympic Rings below.  

Prototype bronze participation medal.

The prototype bronze participation medal by Pinches, depicting the Houses of Parliament and with Lambeth Bridge in the foreground.

We currently have in our possession a rare prototype version of the commemorative medal by Pinches. Also struck in bronze, it measures 38mm in diameter, rather than the participation medal’s 51mm, and weighs a mere 21.19g. The design of the reverse is similar to that of the final piece, only with a different depiction of Westminster, this time looking north, with Lambeth Bridge in the foreground. The inscription is a simpler ‘OLYMPIC GAMES LONDON 1948’. The obverse, rather than featuring an elaborate design by Bertram Mackennal, bears a depiction of a discus thrower. It is unsigned and engraved in more of an ‘Art Deco’ style than the Neo-Classical style of Mackennal’s chariot. Both designs, unsurprisingly, pay tribute to the ancient origins of the Olympic Games.

Bronze medal. Obverse of the prototype bronze medal depicting the discus-thrower in art-deco style placed on top of a wood and green leather desk.
The obverse of the prototype bronze medal depicting the discus-thrower in art-deco style.

Olympic Commemoratives

Unsurprisingly, an event of such prestige and scale of the Olympic Games generally warrants the striking of commemorative coins from the host country. In the case of Great Britain, upon receiving the contract to host the 2012 Olympics (this was awarded in 2008), a special commemorative Two Pound coin was issued by the Royal Mint. It showed the end of the Beijing Olympics and the handover of a symbolic flag bearing the Olympic rings. One of the first objects to bear the controversial 2012 Olympics Logo, the coin’s reverse design was created by the Royal Mint Engraving Team.

The Royal Mint's 2008 Two Pound Coin. The reverse features the symbolic handover of the Olympic Games from China to Britain. This is the Proof Silver strike.
The Royal Mint’s 2008 Two Pound Coin. The reverse features the symbolic handover of the Olympic Games from China to Britain. This is the Proof Silver strike.

The London Olympics gave the Royal Mint an opportunity to release a commemorative coin set on a scale that hadn’t been seen before. The 50 Pence Piece had long been a coin of choice to commemorate events and anniversaries but never had an event seen so many British commemorative issues. A staggering 29 designs graced the 50 Pence Pieces celebrating the 2012 Olympics, each one depicting a different sport that took place at the games. Issued in 2011, the designs varied wildly, having each been designed by a member of the public. The result was a unique series of coins created by the nation. These coins turned out to be incredibly popular, creating new collectors, young and old, all looking to complete their set. Overall, each 50 Pence Piece had a relatively high mintage figure, though some carry higher premiums than others. 

Olympic Games in Tokyo

The 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo were innovative and pioneering in many ways. Tokyo had previously been awarded the organization of the 1940 Summer Olympics, however, this honour was revoked and passed to Helsinki due to Japan’s invasion of China, before ultimately being cancelled because of the Second World War. When the honour was bestowed again on Tokyo in 1964, it was the first time the Summer Games were held in Asia. It was also the first time South Africa was excluded due to its apartheid system in sports and the first time Games were telecast in colour (partially) using a new colour transmission system pioneered by Toshiba.  

Japan Showa commemorative coin for the 1964 summer Olympic games with toning. Mount fuji on the obverse, the olympic rings on the reverse.
Japan, Shōwa, silver 1000 Yen, 1964, year 39 of Shōwa, mount Fuji with cherry blossoms. Rev. Denomination and Olympic rings surrounded with cherry blossoms, 20g (KM Y80). Uncirculated, streaked toning on both sides. A commemorative coin for the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, 1964. View here.

The Japan Mint has issued official commemorative coins for the 2020 Olympics, with a value from 100 Yen to 10,000 Yen, the coins feature 37 different designs for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Taking inspiration from traditional Japanese patterns, each coin’s unique design features Olympic and Paralympic motifs. The five new Olympic sports will be featured on their own 100 Yen commemorative coin, as will the two Tokyo 2020 mascots, Miraitowa and Someity. The two 500 Yen commemorative coins will depict the wind and thunder deities, a design selected through votes by the public. 

The Newest British Commemorative

The Royal Mint recently issued a coin paying tribute to Team GB, which would have been released in 2020. Unsurprisingly, the coin was a 50 Pence Piece. Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, the coin, as well as the games, were postponed. Curiously, while the date on the obverse was updated to 2021 for the coin’s eventual release, the reverse, bearing symbols of each sport in the competition, still featured the original 2020 date in amongst the tennis rackets, footballs and bicycles. As of yet, it appears there has been no attempt to rectify this, so whether the coin will go down in history as another ‘error coin’, similar to the ‘undated’ 20 Pence Piece, is uncertain.  

Throughout their history, the Olympic Games have come accompanied by their own special coins. The prestige and pride associated with hosting the events have seen the vast majority of modern countries hold the games, issuing their own commemorative coins. Even the ancient Greeks had their own ‘Olympic Commemoratives’. As long as there are coin collectors, it doesn’t seem that commemorative Olympic coins will end anytime soon. 

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