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Modern Olympic History Rich With Coins
By Kerry Rodgers, World Coin News
April 10, 2012

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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Another four years have rolled round. Another Summer Olympics is upon us. And with it comes another outpouring of striking coins from mints across the globe. From the viewpoint of 2012 it is hard to credit that it all started just sixty years ago – with the Finns.

The first games of the modern Olympics were held in 1896. The first 50 years delivered no celebratory coins. Not one brass farthing. A few commemorative medallions appeared but numismatically that was it – apart from the winners’ medals.

In the aftermath of World War II, London got to hold the 1948 Summer Games with Helsinki winning the right to host the 1952 event.

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The Finns thought it would be a good idea to strike a single coin to mark a momentous occasion for their country. That coin was a circulating 500 markkaa designed by A. Altonen and M. Visanti and produced in 12 grams of .500 fine silver (KM-35).

The obverse shows the five Olympic Rings with the Roman numeral “XV” above denoting the 15th modern Olympics. The legend says simply “HELSINKI” and “OLYMPIA.” The reverse features the denomination, “500,” surrounded by a wreath with the mint-master’s mark, “H,” below. The legend “SUOMI FINLAND MARKKAA” is separated by dots. This then is the first ever Olympic coin issued for the modern Games. The last time a coin had featured the Olympics was more than 2,000 years ago in Greece.

And it proved a very good idea. Those coins made a tidy profit of $6.5 million for Finland and went some way to helping finance their Games.

Collectors may wish to note there are two date versions of the Finnish coin. That of 1951 had a mintage of just 19,000 and is not easy to obtain in high grade. The 1952 coin had a mintage of 586,000, although it is probable some 26,000 were melted.



1956-1980

It would be 12 years before another Olympic coin was struck. Neither Melbourne (1956) nor Rome (1960) bothered.

Then, in 1964 Tokyo produced two coins: a .600 fine silver 100 yen with a mintage of 80,000,000 and a .925 fine silver 1,000 yen with a mintage of 15,000,000 (KM-79, -80). Cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji were to the fore.

In 1968 Mexico thought just one coin was enough, a .720 fine silver 25 peso (KM-479.1, .2, .3), but in 1972 the Germans considered six .625 fine silver 10 marks were necessary to celebrate the Munich Games (KM-130-35). The first of these coins to appear caused a stir. It showed the words “IN DEUTSCHLAND” in the legend instead of “IN MÜNCHEN.” Games are given to a city and not a country. East Germany was not amused and a change was made on subsequent coins. All come with a variety of mintmarks.

The Germans had originally planned to issue 10,000,000 pieces but in the end opted for 100,000,000. In his The Economics of Staging the Olympics: a Comparison of the Games, 1972-2008, Holger Preuss observes that these six coins returned a profit of $974,000,000 and showed that coin revenues could be a primary source of finance for the Games. This realization caused the flood gates to open – accompanied by a general weeping and gnashing of teeth among Olympic thematic collectors. Germany’s massive profits would never be matched again, although not for want of trying. In 1976 Montreal celebrated with 30 coins only to be outdone in 1980 by Moscow with 45.

Canada’s coin program was developed with the deliberate aim of helping pay for the Games via the generosity of collectors. In all, 28 .925 silver $5 and $10 coins were produced and sold in seven four-coin sets, with the addition of two $100 coins: one in .5830 fine and one in .9170 fine gold (KM-115, 116). The international sales of the gold were anticipated to bring in $610 million, but in the final accounting raised only $310 million. From this Games on it was agreed that each National Olympic Committee would receive 3 percent of the profits of Olympic coins sold in its country.

Several firsts can be laid at Canada’s door. The silver coins were the first ever Canadian coins issued with $5 and $10 denominations. The designs were the first to show a range of Olympic sports. The $100 issues were the first modern Olympic gold coins.

Four years later, across the Bering Strait, the Soviet Union built determinedly on what Canada had wrought. After all, the Moscow Games were the first to be held in a Communist country. The State Bank of the USSR’s original plan was for smaller mintings of more coins. In total they would issue 28 5 and 10 roubles in both proof and BU versions, six proof and six BU gold 100 roubles, five proof and five BU platinum 150 roubles, with six proof and six BU base metal 1-rouble coins thrown in for good measure. Issues started in 1977 and continued to 1980. Those platinum 150 roubles were a first.

The Moscow games became highly politicized and were boycotted by numerous countries including the U.S. Despite this, the coins sold well as far as the State Bank was concerned. Most issues took place prior to the boycott and the State Bank was relieved of all they could supply by a small number of wholesalers. Some analysts consider melting of some of sets occurred subsequently on the secondary market.



1984-2000

The story behind the coins for the 1984 Los Angeles Games is lengthy. Suffice to say here that, when push came to shove, the U.S. Mint settled for minting just three coins out of the 29 originally proposed. One silver dollar was issued in 1983 and a second, accompanied by a gold $10, in 1984 (KM-209, -210, -211).

This $10 was the first gold coin to be struck by the U.S. Mint since 1933. Both proof and BU versions of all three coins were produced. For the benefit of variety collectors, the BU silver coins carry the mintmarks of the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints. The proof silver dollars were struck at San Francisco. The proof gold $10 gold was produced at all three mints, but West Point Mint chimed-in to produce the $10 coin in both proof and BU versions that became the first coins to bear the “W” mintmark.

The Olympic made-for-collectors coin tap was turned back on at Seoul in 1988 with 32 coins. The Koreans could not sell all coins struck, just as the U.S. Mint had failed to do in 1984. Preuss notes both countries ended up melting coins out of what were already relatively low mintages. Nonetheless, the Seoul program returned a healthy profit.

In 1992 Spain tested the waters cautiously but eventually settled for 30 coins for the Barcelona Games including several low-denomination issues. The returns from these issues were satisfactory but could not match those achieved by Seoul.

From this point on coin profits gradually became less important in financing the Games when compared to television and advertising revenues. Even so, properly managed numismatic programs could continue to bring in dollars. It seems odd then that when the U.S. Mint struck 16 coins for the 1996 Atlanta Games, they were reported as ending up out of pocket.

And, when it seemed we might be able to rest on our numismatic laurels for four more years, five mints combined to launch a series of commemoratives to mark the centennial of the modern Games. From 1992 to 1996 these mints took turns to strike sets consisting of one gold and two silver coins with the blessing and active participation of the International Olympic Committee, whose records list:

1992, Royal Canadian Mint: Citius, Altius, Fortius
1993, Royal Australian Mint: Participation, Friendship, Fair Play
1994, Monnaie de Paris: The First Congress
1995, Münze Österreich: Art, Music, Sport
1996, Banknote Printing Works, Greece: The First Olympics

This does not quite line up with the Standard Catalog of World Coins and images therein.



Olympics in the New Millennium


Whatever may have gone before, Australians can be relied on to top it. The XXVI Olympiad in Sydney in 2000 produced a mind-boggling 59 different coins with a total mintage from the Canberra and Perth Mints of 5.5 million; quite modest by the standards of previous Games. These issues marked the influx of new-fangled colorized reverse designs.

All told, the Aussies produced gold and silver proof coins for the Olympics, similar coins for the Paralympics, and an Olymphilex BU dollar.

The coin designs were used to sell Australia to the world, and Olympic themes were optional. Along with kangaroos and koalas, a well known opera house and an even better known harbor bridge, the coins featured sea snakes, stingrays, crocodiles, colonists, a frill-necked lizard, Sturt’s desert pea and, of course, a great white shark, along with a selection of other Dinkum Aussies. Aboriginal dot paintings featured prominently.

For the first time a heavyweight .999 fine 1 kilo silver proof was struck. It showed all 28 sports played at the Games, also depicted on 28 bronze dollars.

For the 2004 Athens Games, Greece struck one 2-euro base metal circulating coin (KM-209) and a 10-euro silver (KM-191) and 100-euro gold coin (KM-192). In addition there was one 12-coin silver set, one six-coin gold set and one four-silver plus two-gold set. There may have been more. The net profit is unknown but may have plateaued. The amount returned from coin sales to each country’s organizing committee was similar for the Athens and Sydney games.

Beijing in 2008 came up with at least twenty-seven coins. These include 1-yen, 10-yen, 150-yen, 300-yen, 2,000-yen and 100,000-yen denominations struck in base metal, silver and/or gold. Themes were largely, but not exclusively, focused on sports. Coins are dated both 2007 and 2008. That 100,000-yen is a 10 kilo .999 fine gold monster.

And now it is London’s turn. I will not count her ways, nor her coins, although I see Wikipedia is touting a final 29.



But There's More!

The above outline considers just those coins issued by the host country in the year of, or prior to, the Games. Since at least 1972 other countries have produced coins to garner what they can from the occasion. Many of these issues have been produced irrespective of the date or whether the country of issue is a participant. Perhaps these countries have simply opted to take on board Olympic founder De Coubertin’s second motto concerning the importance of taking part.

I doubt whether the editor’s patience is sufficient to allow me to begin documenting these issues. However, I do know that Down Under, Perth Mint has already struck 11 London 2012 coins commencing last September while, closer to London-town, Pobjoy has come to light with five issues for the Isle of Man, four for the British Virgin Islands and four for Sierra Leone.

Readers who may now despair at the prospect of ever assembling a representative Olympic collection, may like to consider putting together a set of circulating coins from both the Summer and Winter Olympics. There are a number. That Helsinki 500 markkaa is a good place to start.

Canada’s Lucky Loonie from Vancouver’s Winter Games is another, while Japan, Spain, Greece and have certainly issued circulating Olympic coinage. Tracking these issues down and getting nice examples is a real challenge.



Further reading: Holger Preuss The Economics of Staging the Olympics: A Comparison of the Games, 1972-2008. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2006.




More Coin Collecting Resources:

2012 Standard Catalog of World Coins 2001-Date

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