Medal memories: Looking back at medal designs from the Olympic Winter Games

They kiss it, they bite it, they pose with it.

Olympic medals are always front and centre when comes time to celebrate the athletes who competed and won.

While the design of the medals may have been very conservative and traditional in the early days of the Olympic Winter Games, in recent years they have become extravagant creations by some of the world’s most praised artists. Here’s a look at what Olympic champions have been awarded over the last 30 years.

Calgary 1988

At its first home Winter Games, Team Canada won two silvers and one bronze in figure skating as well as two bronze medals in alpine skiing.

The front of the medal created by German designer Friedrich Peter sported the Games’ emblem, a hybrid between a maple leaf and a snowflake, while its back showcased the profile of an athlete wearing olive wreath. While so far that all sounds very conservative, at the forefront was an Aboriginal person whose headdress feathers were composed of ski poles, a bobsled, skis, skates, a hockey stick, a luge sled and a rifle. Business in the front, party in the back?

Albertville 1992

Team Canada had its best Olympic Winter Games medal haul in 60 years, including two gold medals.

The Olympic medals, made for the first time out of glass, were all hand cut by the craftsmen at Maison Lalique and set within the gold, silver and bronze metal. On the front were the five Olympic rings, with a valley in the background that gave the impression of perspective. It was on the back where the rings were engraved in the colourless glass with the lies symbolizing the French mountains. Let’s hope no athlete dropped their medal!

Lillehammer 1994

Team Canada’s medal total grew once again, this time to lucky 13.

F0llowing in the footsteps of the French hosts two years earlier, the Norwegians also incorporated another material into the traditional metals used for Olympic medals. Granite, or specifically sparagmite, is present in large quantities in Norway and represents that which the country’s inhabitants love most: nature. While the front is rather classic with the Olympic rings, the work of designer Ingjerd Hanevold in the back includes the pictogram for the sport in which the medal was awarded.

Nagano 1998

Four years later, Canada improved its record haul by winning 15 medals, including six golds in Japan.

Honoring local traditions, the 1998 Olympic Winter Games medals were created using Japanese lacquer techniques. On one side we see the rising sun surrounded by an olive wreath and the emblem of the Games. On the other side, it is the mountains of the Sinshu Prefecture that are honored. I do not know about you, but just by staring at the Nagano medal, I feel more zen.

Salt Lake City 2002

With 10 new events in the 2002 Olympic program, Team Canada took the opportunity to raise its record medal count to 17.

On the front of the medals worn by Canadian medallists, we see a man rising from the flames with a torch, representing the resilience of the human spirit and the power to inspire. The phrase “Light the Fire Within” is engraved on the front of the medal, marking the first time that a Games motto is written on an Olympic medal.

At the back, Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, holds a small leaf, symbolizing the olive wreaths that were presented to the winners of the Games in ancient Greece. Within Nike’s embrace is a representation of the event associated with the medal. At the base of the ribbon loop is the Roman number XIX for the 19th edition of the Olympic Winter Games. Every medal had a slightly unique shape, designed in the form of river rocks, such as those found in Utah waters to make them part modern and part rustic. It is the first time since Sarajevo 1984 that the medals are not perfectly round.

Turin 2006

For the seventh consecutive time, Canada broke its medal record in 2006, achieving 24 podium finishes and reaching the top three in the medal table.

Some saw it as a donut, others viewed it as a CD. The Turin 2006 medals stood out for their shape rather than what was engraved on it. At the front of the 107mm diameter disc – which is, by the way, the largest in Winter Olympic history and almost 25% larger than those from four years earlier – we find the graphic elements of the Games while at the back is the event in which the medal was won. The hole in the centre was mean to reveal the place where the heart beats.

Vancouver 2010

Unlike the first two times that the Olympic Games were held on Canadian soil and Canada won no gold medals, in 2010 the country had a record number of first place finishes. The 14 gold medals were the most ever by any country at a Winter Games, while the 26 total medals is still a national record.

The wavy shape of the medals was designed by Omer Arbel, an industrial designer and architect from Vancouver, and required the medal to be struck nine times as part of the 30-step manufacturing process (are we assembling Ikea furniture or creating Olympic medals here?). The inspiration for these medals comes from artwork of an orca whale by Corrine Hunt, a artist of aboriginal descent. Each of the medals has a different section of the artwork carved on its front side, which makes them all unique.

Sochi 2014

Canada sent its largest ever Winter Games contingent to Sochi. Composed of 222 athletes, the Canadian team collected 25 medals, which is the country’s best performance at a Winter Games held on foreign soil.

The patchwork quilt mosaic found at the centre of the medals (made of gold, silver, bronze and polycarbonate) is designed according to the tradition of various cultures and ethnicities in Russia. The medal-cutting represents the landscape of Sochi with its snow-capped peaks that reflect the sun’s rays on the sandy beaches of the Black Sea coast.

Since they do nothing like anywhere else in Russia, the seven gold medallists on February 15, 2014 received a medal that contained meteor dust from the meteor that landed in Russia one year earlier. Yes, seven Olympic champions received a medal made of materials from space! Unfortunately for us, no Canadian climbed to the top of the podium that day.