Here's Why Olympic Athletes Always Bite Their Gold Medals

credit: Getty Images/TASS/Stanislav Krasilnikov/Contributor
credit: Getty Images/TASS/Stanislav Krasilnikov/Contributor

Every two years, a curious phenomenon appears at the top of Olympic podiums, baffling spectators who think they understand the difference between edible foods and precious metals. We're talking about the celebratory gesture of Olympic medalists biting their winning hardware. 

Gold medal winners are the cream of the Olympic crop, so surely they know there's no hygienic benefit to chomping on the most coveted prize in international sports. So why do they do it? 

The most obvious answer: photographers love the image of an Olympian teething on their freshly-earned medallion. In 2012, David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, told CNN that it's just an appealing image to photographers:  

"I think they look at it as an iconic shot, as something that you can probably sell," he said. "I don't think it's something the athletes would probably do on their own."

There's also a historical precedent, dating back to the time gold was hard, legal tender in the USA. During the Gold Rush, people would often sink their teeth into the metal to test its purity. Since it's a soft substance that bends when bitten, it was good way to test if your dosh was legit. If not, you'd likely be chomping on pyrite, potentially chipping your teeth and going broke in the process. 

Today, the gold medals you see weighing down athletes' necks aren't even close to 100% real -- pure gold medals haven't been present at the Olympics since the Stockholm games in 1912. The most idealized Olympic prize nowadays is only about 1.34% gold. And in an especially ironic twist, today's gold medals are largely composed of silver; the only thing gold about them is the cosmetic finish. 

Nothing like a convincing veneer, right? But hey, you still have to be the best to put that gold-colored silver medal between your teeth. 

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Sam Blum is a News Staff Writer for Thrillist. He's also a martial arts and music nerd who appreciates a fine sandwich and cute dogs. Find his clips in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club and Esquire. He's on Twitter @Blumnessmonster.