As Great Britain celebrates its biggest haul of Olympic gold since 1908, London residents and tourists can see what all the fuss is about with free exhibitions at the British Museum and Royal Opera House.
'Mine to Medal', which runs at the British Museum until the final day of the Paralympics on 9th September, tells the story of the production of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic medals – all the way from mines in Mongolia to hanging from the shoulders of proud winning athletes (via the Royal Mint in Wales).
Part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the exhibition gives sports fans the chance to see public displays of the official Olympic and Paralympic medals – designed respectively by jewellers David Watkins and Lin Cheung.
We spoke to members of the public at the British Museum on Tuesday – most of whom were stunned by the sheer size of the medals. Measuring nearly 3.5 inches in diameter and 7mm in thickness, and weighing around 400 grams each, the London 2012 medals are indeed the biggest Summer Olympics medals to date.
Alfonso Torres, a tourist from Mexico, said he felt inspired to see the medals. "This exhibition is a great opportunity to see the medals from up close. It's very inspiring – especially the Paralympic medal, which I think is amazing. They're much bigger than expected – I just wish I could touch them with my own hands," he said.
Christian Feve, from the town of Bourges in central France, came to London with his wife to watch the Handball and Volleyball events this summer and described the exhibition as a "very good idea".
"It's very interesting to see the history of the medals and understand how they were made. I find the London 2012 logo on the medal very intriguing too – it's not something that has visual immediacy and it takes a bit of time to spot. They are very artistic," he said. Regarding the size of the medals, Christian shared his theory: "I imagine they get bigger each year for the TV audiences watching at home."
The exhibition explains how the metal for the medals was sourced by Rio Tinto mines in the USA and Mongolia – with nearly eight million tonnes of ore needed to produce the 4,700 gold, silver and bronze medals that were crafted at the Royal Mint in Wales.
Watkins's Olympic medal design juxtaposes the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, for the spirit and tradition of the Games, and the River Thames, for the city of London. Cheung's Paralympic medal was inspired by the folds in the clothing of an ancient statue of Nike, with a Braille inscription naming the relevant sport on the rim of each medal.
A short walk from the British Museum, another free exhibition in the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden brings alive the history of the Olympics, allowing guests to see all the Olympic medal designs since 1896 as well as every Olympic torch since 1936.
"Being of the older generation I can remember the 1948 Olympics when the Games last came to London," said Keith Tidmarsh, who had travelled in from Chigwell in Essex to see the exhibition with his wife. Like the onlookers at the British Museum, Keith was stunned by the size of the latest Olympic medals.
"We really enjoyed the exhibition and it was wonderful to see how the designs of the medals progressed through the ages. What we noticed is that on the whole the medals stayed much the same – it's just this year, they're much larger," he said.
'The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games' at the Royal Opera House is open daily (10am-6.15pm) until 12th August. Queues can take up to 45 minutes so best arrive as early as possible.