No glory in auctioning Olympic gold medals

Tommie Smith and John Carlos give Black power salute during an awards ceremony at the 1968 Summer OlympicsAuctioning off your Olympic gold medal is not usually a winning financial strategy, according to experts. Tommie Smith and a podium-full of other champion athletes are about to find out if they're right. Smith is hawking the gold medal he won in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics before he raised his gloved fist in a Black Power salute during the National Anthem. He joins a recent run of first-place Olympians going for gold on the auction block.

Smith is doing it in part for the money, an associate said. He better keep his expectations in check. Although the bidding begins at $250,000, a sports memorabilia dealer predicted in the San Jose Mercury News that Smith will probably reap between $6,000 and $10,000 by the time the bidding closes on Nov. 4. As of this writing, there have been no bids. The sprinter's gesture in Mexico City is now remembered by some as a significant moment in civil rights, but the price is too steep for the keepsake.

Olympic gold medals don't sell like souvenirs from the major professional sports. They grab the public's interest every four years, then fade into memory. That doesn't stop collectors and athletes, who tend to over-inflate their hardware's worth, according to the article.

WalletPop has compiled a short list of gold medals that have been put up for the bidding. I'll put in my two cents worth that I learned in my stint at a sports auction house.

Mark Wells already had sold the gold medal he won as a forward on the USA "Miracle on Ice" hockey team that stunned the Soviet Union in 1980 -- and it's on the market again. Wells, who had bills to pay for a genetic spinal disorder, presumably won't benefit from this round. The auctioneer handling the transaction told the Boston Herald he expects at least $125,000 on behalf of its Connecticut owner. While the gold represents perhaps the quintessential Olympics moment, it was one of 20 awarded to team members and coaches. Six figures might be pushing it.

Javelin thrower Osleidys Menendez of Cuba is asking for a minimum of $30,000 on eBay for her gold medal from the 2004 Athens Olympics. The bidding closes Oct. 22. The javelin is an obscure event. We wish her the best, but this reserve price won't fly.

Australian cyclists Ian Browne and Tony Marchant, winners of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics 2,000-meter tandem race, set a lowball offer of $50,000 (Australian) apiece for their medals. Not bloody likely. Apparently these guys were the big deal in
their host home country at the time. That was 54 years ago. The bidding was set to begin late last year, but I couldn't find the outcome in my Google wanderings.

Then there is the rare athlete who parts with his prize for the sake of philanthropy. Swimmer Anthony Ervin, the co-winner of the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympics, auctioned off his gold medal on eBay in 2005 to benefit the Tsunami Relief Fund. The winning bid was $17,100. The medal was just a symbol, he explained.

Outside of symbolism, an Olympic gold medal isn't worth its weight in gold, cracked the Wall Street Journal headline. The top awards handed out at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing actually contained 6 grams of gold plating on top of silver. That's about $500 melted down, according to theJournal. Like most medal auctions, it doesn't exactly compensate for a lifetime of sweat, does it?

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