Sports

An oral history of Olympic athletes biting their medals

The 2016 Rio Olympics have been historic for any number of reasons, not least of which the sheer number of athletes joyously chomping down on the medals they just won. Whether to verify karat-count or as an homage to an inspiring medal-biter from the past, everyone seems to be having a munch on their precious neckpieces. Matthew McAuley and Joseph Harper spoke to some of the principal prize eaters of recent history about this celebratory phenomenon.

Florian Rousseau, 1996 (Photo: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport)

Florian Rousseau, 1996 (Photo: Ross Kinnaird /Allsport)

Florian Rousseau (Cycling, France, 1996-2000)
When I attended my first Olympics, we didn’t have a lot of access to previous podium photography. Gérard sat me down the night before the Time Trial and imparted on me the potential weight of that post-race occasion; the iconic ceremonies whose images had become eternal. I retired to my room for my customary raceday eve supper of a single, large biscuit, and I pondered.

Gérard Quintyn (Cycling Coach, France, 1996)
I was always supremely confident in Florian’s ability to win, yet far less in his ability to create a moment. His gifts for cycling were not always matched by his abilities as a showman. It is the greatest pleasure of my professional life to acknowledge: I was wrong.

Florian Rousseau (Cycling, France, 1996-2000)
As I stood, arms skyward, I imagined that mid-evening snack. I had given her my time and my consideration, and she had given me the requisite energies to ascend my sport’s highest peak. I bit my medal like a biscuit, but not as hard as I would have bitten an actual biscuit.

Anne van Olst (Equestrian, Denmark, 2008-2012)
There’s some historical precedent. I read in a book that in the ancient Greek Olympics, the medal winners would dip their medals in olive oil and dukkah and suck on them. That’s kind of like biting.

Nakao Takahashi (Marathon, Japan, 2000)
I can’t claim to speak to the motivations of my fellow Olympians, but my intention was a sort of meta-commentary. From the day we first take the track, the Olympic gold medal is what runners want more than anything. But what do I want more than anything when I’ve just finished a race? A Dutch stroopwafel. I was pretending it was one of those.

Danyon Loader (Swimming, New Zealand, 1992-1996)
I only found out after the fact that we were supposed to bite them. I just put it in my mouth and kind of rimmed it with my tongue. Seemed like a suitably celebratory thing to do. Pretty embarrassing in retrospect. I actually don’t like putting things in my mouth anymore because of that.

Michael Phelps (Swimming, USA, 2004 – 2016)
I actually ate a bit of the gold in Beijing. We were doing the biting pose and Pieter [van den Hoogenband] slipped and bumped into me, so my teeth ground off some gold. It was soft but also cold and shiny tasting. I didn’t mind it. I’ve tried it again since. It’s nice. I like to have a bit on special occasions. Smoke some weed. Eat some gold. I can see why it costs so much money.

Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps etc., 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps etc., 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)

Carl Lewis (Athletics, USA, 1984-1996)
I’ve won a lot of medals, and I’ve pitched a lot of other poses – pulling the medal from behind my coach’s ear, holding it like a Power Ranger coin – but the photographers don’t want to see it. They call it the Big Bite, “We just want to see the Big Bite!” I always knew that the medals weren’t food though. They’re made of metal.

Ryan Lochte (Swimming, USA, 2012-2016)
The medals are made of chocolate.

Teddy Riner (Judo, France, 2008-2016)
At my first Olympics, in Beijing, I won bronze. My fellow Judoka told me that to bite the battle-won gold medal was to experience a sweetness rivaling victory itself. Mine tasted like a rusty battery and it irritated my fillings.

Ryan Lochte (Swimming, USA)
The chocolate is firm yet giving, of a quality so obvious that to try and explain it would be gauche in the extreme.

Christian Laettner (Basketball, USA, 1992)
I ain’t done bit no gold, man. That shit gold. That ain’t not for eatin, man. That shit go on your neck or whatever, man. I ain’t put in me mouth a bit of gold. [Indecipherable] no way!  I ain’t a dragon.

Ki Bo Bae (Archery, South Korea, 2012)
To me, biting the medal was a symbolic reinforcement of all that I’d achieved, to have competed in the company and the shadow of my greatest peers and rivals and to have risen above all. For me, the Olympic gold medal was a metaphor not for food, but for the world of archery. In real life, though, it was made of gold-plated metal. Silver I think. I’m not interested in trying to eat metal.

Ryan Lochte (Swimming, USA, 2012-2016)
Each bite reveals multitudes, each mouthful an affecting articulation of the chocolatier’s art. Sometimes the chocolate has a filling but sometimes it doesn’t.

Cathy Freeman (Athletics, Australia, 1996-2000)
I just think it looks fucking cool. It’s like, ‘Here I am. I’m the fastest runner with the sharpest teeth in the world.’ It makes you feel like a powerful goblin or something.

Teddy Riner (Judo, France, 2008-2016)
I’ve won two gold medals now, and honestly I still don’t get it. It’s just metal. The bronze tastes the worst but none of them taste good.

Florian Rousseau (Cycling, France, 1996-2000)
Was I the first Olympian to bite his medal like a biscuit? Like a child’s bar of candy? Like, dare I say, a kiln-fresh naan? I couldn’t possibly say. Was I, however, a powerful influencer in the rise of this near-ubiquitous celebration? Yes. I was that.

Ryan Lochte (Swimming, USA)
Look, I know what the swimming podcasters wanna say about Ryan Lochte, “He’s crazy, he’s an American disgrace!” I know my life, and I know this fact: the Rio medals were sweet and unctuous. Taking clear influence from the traditional brigadeiro, but more toothsome than that often polarising Brazilian snack, theirs was a flavour which – like the games themselves – nodded humbly to the past while reaching steadfastly for the future.

I won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, and I have eaten it.

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