Behind the Making of the Tokyo 2020 Medals

Society Technology Tokyo 2020

We take a behind the scenes look at the process to craft medals for the 2020 Games, observing the uncanny chemical reaction that turns silver medals into gold and meeting the skilled craftspeople who finish each medal by hand.

Turning Silver into Gold

We spent over a year with exclusive access to the process to create Japan’s Olympic medals, right through from the vetting process to the selection of the winning entry and the crafting of the medals.

Tokyo Medals Unveiled

The July 24 event marked one year to go until the 2020 Games.
The July 24 event marked one year to go until the 2020 Games.

On July 24, exactly one year before the commencement of the Tokyo Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach was joined by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and several Olympic medalists in a ceremony to reveal the medals that will be awarded at the Games.

Light and Community

The medals were revealed at an event held on July 24.
The medals were revealed at an event held on July 24.

The Olympic medals, each 8.5 centimeters in diameter and weighing 556 grams, invoke the themes of light and brilliance, reflecting light in a multitude of directions as a way to symbolize the energy of athletes and their supporters. The appearance of the medals’ circular motif—a shining symbol of people from all over the world holding hands—changes with the viewing angle.

Years of Experience

The medals are manufactured by Japan Mint, which is located in Osaka and is also known for the cherry blossoms that grace its grounds. In addition to all denominations of coins used in Japan, the Japan Mint also produces various commemorative coins, medals, and even the trophies for the People’s Honor Award trophies. The Mint employs many expert medal craftspeople, having produced the medals for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics, and the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

The Devil is in the Detail

To create the Olympic medals, Japan Mint technicians first machined the winning design into a die. However, machine-worked dies bear invisible marks from the cutter head, like the grooves on a record. A mere 0.01 millimeters across, these machining marks need to be painstakingly removed by hand under a microscope with the aid of extremely fine tools.

Machined areas shine once fine marks have been removed.
Machined areas shine once fine marks have been removed.

While it seems counterintuitive that marks so fine could make any difference, employee Doteuchi Yasushi notes that the presence of machining marks on the pressed metal would slightly change the medals’ appearance.

Japan Mint employee Doteuchi Yasushi.
Japan Mint employee Doteuchi Yasushi.

Doteuchi, who has been doing this job ever since he joined the mint 36 years ago, was born in 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics. “It may be fate,” he laughs.

Doteuchi continues: “Striving to be this faithful to the designer’s wishes is a challenge, but with the Olympics being such a high-profile event, we need to get it right.”

Getting the Toes Right

With the finished die set in the press, the stamping process begins. Rather than attempting to stamp medals in a single pass, the technicians use a three-pass process to create crisper lines and finer detail.

Comparing a medal after a single stamping with the same medal after two more stampings, one can see how the toes and shins of Nike (the goddess of victory) become progressively better defined.

The use of a technique whereby the stamping force on a gold medal is progressively increased from 330 metric tons to 380 tons, and eventually to 470 tons, to achieve a precise impression, is a mark of the attention to detail seen in Japanese craftsmanship. (Bronze medals, whose material is slightly harder than gold or silver, are pressed four times.)

Every Medal is Handcrafted

As a medal will harden with pressing, after each pressing cycle it is heated to 800℃ for 15 minutes to soften it, before being immediately plunged into cold water. Finally, the oxide layer on the medal’s surface is removed so that it can be pressed again.

Each medal is painstakingly hand-washed.
Each medal is painstakingly hand-washed.

“You need to polish along the contours of the design, otherwise the oxide layer won’t come off. While our operation is mechanized, all the fine work is still performed individually and by hand,” says Nakamura Tatsuya of Japan Mint’s coins and medals division.

Despite the Mint’s introduction of the latest manufacturing technologies, skilled craftsmen are still an indispensable part of the process. Nakamura explains: “Like Olympic athletes, we need to work as a team. If we don’t prepare the medals properly and ahead of time for the press operator, the process gets held up. It’s a race against time.”

Turning Silver into Gold

After being pressed three times and undergoing several rounds of finishing, the medals are ready for the final process, gold plating. As many readers will know, Olympic gold medals are in fact silver medals that have been plated with gold.

The medal is placed in a transparent plating solution. When electric current is applied, the silver medal turns gold in a split second, in the most surprising part of the entire process.

A Mint officer explains that when a silver medal is immersed in a solution of gold potassium cyanide and potassium cyanide, the gold in the solution begins to be deposited on the surface of the medal within moments. It’s hard to understand what is going on without some knowledge of chemistry, but the surprise of seeing this chemical reaction up close can be moving. Even Organizing Committee staff in attendance let out gasps of surprise.

The Very First Gold Medals

The first finished gold medals, after two more hours in the plating bath.
The first finished gold medals, after two more hours in the plating bath.

These medals, for softball, are the first 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games gold medals ever produced. Each medal weighs 556 grams, but for some reason they feel heavier.

Since the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Olympic medals have depicted Nike, the goddess of victory from Greek mythology, on the front (left in the photo above), and the design of the Olympic Games in question on the reverse (right). When you hold a Tokyo 2020 medal in the palm of your hand, its motif glimmers with the slightest movement, a symbol of diversity and of people around the world joining hands in a circle.

Each of the 5,000 medals that will be awarded in 2020 takes around a week to produce, and is individually handcrafted by skilled craftspeople. One year from now, these medals, a testament to Japanese craftsmanship, will grace the chests of the world’s best athletes.

(Originally broadcast in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on July 24, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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