Paralympic medals are displayed at the unveiling of Olympic and Paralympic medals at Olympic Village in Vancouver, 15 Feb 2010
Paralympic medals are displayed at the unveiling of Olympic and Paralympic medals at Olympic Village in Vancouver, 15 Feb 2010

The teams of athletes gathered in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics have trained and honed their skills to win medals.  But another team - from the Royal Canadian Mint - has used all of its skills and training to make the medals the athletes are trying to capture.

Outside a former Bank of Montreal building in downtown Vancouver, two long lines snake their way up Granville Street.  Some of the people in line have been waiting several hours to see, feel and hold Olympic medals.

The Royal Canadian Mint has taken over the building - now Simon Fraser University's School of Business - for a special exhibit of the Olympic medals to be awarded in Vancouver.

The medals for the Olympics and Paralympics are on display on the second floor of the building, where Project Manager Dan Mallett tells tour groups about how the medals were designed and made.

Dressed in a charcoal gray athletic outfit, Mallet wears special white cotton gloves - gloves that every visitor receives before entering the exhibit.  He explains that each medal is unique - none of the 615 Olympic and 339 Paralympic medals is identical.

This is the first time the Olympic medals are not flat.  Their surfaces undulate to simulate Canada's terrain.  The medals are adorned with Native Canadian icons and designs of killer whales.  The Paralympic medals have a native symbol of a raven that represents overcoming obstacles.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, each medal is a piece of the master design.  If all of the medals were placed together, they would form a complete picture.  Medal winners receive a scarf with the overall design, so they can see where their medal fits.

Deanna Scott of White Rock, Surrey in British Columbia is one of the people listening to Mallett's presentation.  Wearing a Canada team sweatshirt, a woolen cap and sunglasses, she picked up the gold medal, snapped a photograph and turned over the prize to see the back.  Scott says that waiting in line for three hours was worth it to hold one of the medals.

"That's pretty cool, especially after we just won one yesterday," she said.  "I am extremely proud of all our Canadian athletes.  I was in line at 9:00 this morning.  But it was worth it, definitely worth it."

The Royal Canadian Mint was tasked with bringing the vision of local artists Corrine Hunt and Omer Arbel to life in a way that uniquely represents Canada.

Mint Communications Director Christine Aquino says that when the final products emerged, it was a very special day. "I can tell you it was quite an emotional day at the Mint.  There were approximately 34 people who worked directly on those medals.  They got quite attached over two-and-a-half years.  And now that we see them being awarded to athletes from all over the world, we are very proud about that," she said.

Creating the medals is an arduous process.  Each one weighs more than 500 grams and took more than 30 steps to manufacture.  Because of their unique surface, each medal is struck with 12 dies - nine times with 1,900 tons of pressure, the weight of more than 700 automobiles.  The native designs were laser-engraved on each medal.

The gold medals are mostly silver.  But each is plated with six grams of gold.  The silver medals are almost entirely made of silver.  The bronze medals are largely copper because burnished bronze and gold are similar in color, and the mint did not want any confusion as to which medal an athlete receives.

The Mint's Christine Aquino says people don't mind the lengthy wait to see, hold and photograph the medals.  She says most visitors are shocked by their weight and are thrilled to touch something that only a few people will ever possess.

"They are meant to represent the feat that an athlete has to accomplish to win that sport.  And we're just thrilled.  We knew we had something great to come to Vancouver with, and we're quite proud of it," said Aquino.

Outside at the head of the line, Luca and Andre Bucci of Hamilton, Ontario are almost to the door.  The two men attended the women's moguls event on February 13, where Canadian Jennifer Heil won a silver medal.  They say that even though Heil's medal wasn't gold, they are proud a Canadian made the podium.

The hundreds of fans who visit the Mint pavilion get to hold the medals and take photographs.  The thousands of athletes competing in Vancouver are striving for the same privilege.  But only a few will possess the coveted prizes.  The artists and craftspeople who made the medals say that the winners will take a special piece of Canada with them when the Games are over.


Related report by VOA's Kane Farabaugh