The Participation Medal: It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How You Play the Game

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She was a teenager marching into the National Olympic Stadium during the pomp and circumstance of the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And she was in awe. This athlete, who wishes to stay anonymous, was from a country that was participating in the Olympics for the first time. She held no aspirations of taking home a medal, and at times, she felt overwhelmed.

But when she saw the following words on the stadium screen, she felt they were meant for her.

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part. Just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.

The founder of the modern Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, had an idealistic view of the Games, that people and nations were not gathering to win, but to do their best. In fact, from the very first Modern Games in Athens in 1896, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requires that each hosting organizing committee provide Participation Medals to all athletes attending the Olympics.

I have one, the participation medal from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Designed by Taro Okamoto and Kazumitsu Tanaka, the medal was manufactured from copper, with an image of three runners and a swimmer on one side, with the five Olympic rings and the words “XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964” in both English and Japanese on the flip side. Only about 5,600 of these medals were created, and as mandated by the IOC, the medal’s dies and molds are returned to the IOC. So in theory, I have one of a limited collection.

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To be honest, most Olympians are likely not satisfied with going home with just a participation medal. But high jumper, John Thomas, would have been. At both the 1960 Rome Olympics and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he was expected by the press and perhaps the USOC to win gold. But he won bronze in Rome and silver in Tokyo, results that should be a matter of pride and joy for Thomas. But as he explained to the AP in 1964, “they have no use for losers. They don’t give credit to a man for trying.”

Over 5,100 athletes attended the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and over 500 medals were distributed to people who were in first, second or third. In other words, some 90% of all athletes, or about 4,500 Olympians went home without a gold, silver or bronze medal. But they did take home a Participation Medal. And because of that, someone in Bulgaria thought it was OK to sell it to some guy in Tokyo.