An Olympic Feat

Olympic athletes ascending the podium in Vancouver, British Columbia, next month will be rewarded with rippling medals of striking simplicity, displaying only the Games’ raised rings set against an abstract graphic. Such restraint is a feat in itself, given that the event is a political blood sport rife with national interests. (The East German swimmers are doping! The judges favor the Russian ice skaters! The Chinese gymnasts are middle schoolers!) National pride also typically manifests itself in the medals, which, in addition to featuring the token image of a Greek goddess, are loaded with the year, the name and mascot of the host city, and symbolic nods to place. Not so for Vancouver—but had the budget not been a constraint, the medals might have been even more unconventionally daring.

“We won with a concept for a locket, the iconic piece of jewelry,” says Omer Arbel, the Vancouver-based industrial designer who created the 2010 medals. Athletes would have opened the medal—two halves held together by magnets—to find a small pendant inside. “One of the things we found sad about Olympic medals is that they go into a case or on a shelf, and no one engages with them as part of daily life,” Arbel says. “The idea here was that the pendant could be worn every day.” What’s more, he intended to adapt an ancient jewelry-production technique to make each medal unique. That process proved too expensive, as did an even more ambitious plan to record each finalist before an event and engrave the sounds inside the medal, which could then be played like a record. “We wanted to document that indeterminate moment before history is made in order to capture emotion in a way that is not symbolic or allegorical,” Arbel explains.

The committee asked Arbel to bring the cost down and to include both a specific reference to the host region and a work by the First Nations artist Corinne Hunt. The designer cropped the design from large, rippling sheets of metal stamped with Hunt’s paintings of an orca and a raven. “The undulations were originally supposed to represent the B.C. landscape,” Arbel says. Had the conceit held, some medals would have borne mountainous waves, while others would have been as flat as farm-land, but in the end they were cut from a more uniform wave pattern. The pendant idea disappeared, too, as the medals were reduced to a single layer.

One can’t help wondering if Arbel feels like he lost in his Olympic-medal quest. “I still like them,” he insists. “They’re beautiful objects.”

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