How Much Is an Olympic Medal Worth? Depends Who Won It.

How Much Is an Olympic Medal Worth? Depends Who Won It.

This year, a Brazilian mint churned out more than 5,000 gold, silver, and bronze medals for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Over the next two weeks, these thousands of medals will be handed out to the world's greatest athletes and competitors: people like Michael Phelps — who became a 21-time gold medalist Tuesday night — and swimmer Kathleen Baker — who, despite an ongoing battle with Crohn's disease, nabbed a silver medal on Monday.

While Olympic medals are clearly valuable — in terms of bragging rights and, in some cases, historical significance — their real monetary value is not so easy to calculate.

Why?

There are several variables that determine the worth of an Olympic medal, including the identity of its winner.

Here are three big factors that come into play:

Olympic medals are rarely sold

One commonly cited figure for the worth of a gold medal is about $500, the price you'd get if you melted the thing down and sold it to a dealer.

Seem kind of low?

That's because that value is based on the prices of gold and sterling silver — since the latter metal comprises the majority of the Olympic gold. (If the medal were pure gold, it would be more than 10 times as valuable.)

But this is a strange way to calculate worth: Very few medals are up for auction, and when they are, their cost is much higher than just that of their precious-metals content. 

For example, one of the medals from the London 2012 Olympics sold earlier this summer for more than $55,000, said Robert Livingston, a public relations representative with Boston auction house RR Auction, in an email. The high price commanded is in part because medals from more recent games are rarer — and thus more valuable.

At the moment, bidding on an un-awarded gold medal from the 2004 games in Athens, Greece, has topped $19,000 on eBay.

When athletes do sell their metals, it can be a sign that they are "in bad shape financially," IOC Collectors Commission member Jim Greensfelder told USA Today.

Certain athletes command higher-value medals

The particular sport a winning athlete plays can also boost the sale price of a medal. 

Medals from the Winter Olympics, for instance, tend to fetch a higher price at auction since they are somewhat rarer, Livingston said: The Winter games include only 15 events, while the Summer Olympics has 41.

Good stories also boost value: The most valuable Olympic medal ever sold was track star Jesse Owens' gold medal from the 1936 Olympics in Nazi-occupied Berlin, which went for nearly $1.5 million in 2013. 

It completely trounced the previous two records: a silver cup from the first modern Olympics and a gold medal from the so-called 1980 "Miracle on Ice," when the U.S. upset the powerhouse U.S.S.R. in ice hockey.

Medals pay off in other ways, too

In addition to winning medals, U.S. Olympic athletes get cash prizes: $25,000 for gold medalists, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. Notably, those prizes are taxed.

Some other countries award their athletes far more. Gold medalists from Azerbaijan, for example, are eligible for a $510,000 prize.

But even that windfall pales in comparison to the lucrative endorsement deals that popular Olympians can score after a big win. Phelps's numerous deals, for example, have turned him into millionaire many times over.

Then again, a medal win is no guarantee of an endorsement deal, particularly in recent years — as sponsors have gotten choosier in response to scandals, Victoria University sports researcher Camilla Brockett explained to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 

She went on to note that "athletes who work to maximize that gold medal would have already done the work leading up to that, to position themselves as a person of integrity."