While it is a standard today, the tradition of giving the winners of events at the Olympic Games a gold medal, with second and third getting a silver and bronze medal, has not always been the case. In actual fact, at the ancient Olympics no medals were awarded at all. The first-place winner was given an olive branch to wear on his head, with second and third place not receiving anything.
At the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, silver medals were awarded to the winners and bronze to the second place getters. At the next Games in 1900, most winners received cups or trophies instead of medals. It was not until the 1904 Games in St. Louis that the now-traditional gold, silver and bronze medals were first awarded.
Why More Medals Than Events Are Given Out
We now count the number of gold silver and bronze winners for all games, even if they did not physically receive one. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games there were 33 sports with 50 disciplines, and a total of 339 events. Although there are 339 medal events, because some sports award multiple bronze medalists and the occasional tie, there are even more medals awarded.
Here are some examples of when a different number of medals were given out.
- Although team sports count as one medal, all players in the team events get a medal, even the players that are only on the field for a very short time (though this has not always been the case). In relay events in the pool, sometimes a completely different team may complete in the heats, but all heat swimmers are still eligible for a medal if the team wins in the final.
- The sports of boxing, judo, taekwondo, and wrestling do not conduct a playoff for third, instead award two bronze medals, resulting in always more bronze medals being awarded than gold and silver.
- There are the occasional event ties, where two of one medal may be awarded. If this tie is for gold or silver, there will be consequently no silver or bronze medal for that event, but a third place tie results in extra bronze medals. In the 2016 men's 100 meter butterfly swimming event there was actually a 3-way-tie for second, so three silver medals and no bronze medal were awarded. In Tokyo 2020, Qatar's Mutaz Barshim and Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi finished in a tie for first in the high jump. A count-back could not split them, and so they agreed to share the gold medal rather than participate in a tie-breaker jump off. Also in 2021, two bronze medals were awarded for a third-place tie in the women's floor gymnastics event
- Some events at early Olympic Games had only two entrants, such as the cricket tournament at the 1900 Summer Olympics between England and France, which was won by England. In other examples, there is not enough details known to work out the placegetters. In the 100 meter freestyle swimming event in 1896 there were no surviving records to distinguish the places of those who finished between 3rd and 10th position.
- Not all medals that have been revoked due to doping violations have been re-awarded.
- Two Japanese pole vaulters tied for second place at the 1936 men's pole vault event, however they refused to participate in a tiebreaker. Instead, they cut their medals in half and they fused them together so they were half silver, half bronze.
- Up until 1948, in boxing there was a bronze medal match for the two losing semi-finalists. From 1952 until 1970, there was no bronze medal fight but they did not receive a bronze medal - both losing semi-finalists were awarded an Olympic diploma instead.