We all know about the gold, silver, and bronze medals presented at each Olympics. But what is a bit lesser known is the fact that everyone who participates in the Olympic Games goes home with a medal. These medals are called participation medals and this is the story of the man who became world renowned as their foremost collector and carved out a respected reputation as the principal expert on authenticating them.
Over the last few days, I’ve shared the story of an incredible Olympic pin trading collection and then I returned to increase your knowledge regarding collecting Olympic medals. I’m pleased to report that those are just the first two parts of Jim Greensfelder’s very interesting Olympic history. Let the Games, quite literally, begin once again as I move to the topic of participation medals and the role they played in his life as a collector.
I pick up the story just as Jim has firmly established himself in the world of Olympic medal collecting on a mix of levels. He has built a collection yet when we did the interview, those gold, silver, and bronze medals are not what he had laid out on his desk for me to see. I realized, there had to be a turning point and I uncovered it when when I asked how he came to specialize in participation medals? With a smile, he explained that it came down to price.
Collecting those awarded medals was simply too expensive. Even as a director at Procter & Gamble making a nice salary, there came a point where he had to make a decision regarding how much he would put into this hobby. Participation medals had a lower price point yet carried much of the same thrill of the chase and chase them he did!
Before I go too deep into this part of Jim’s story, let’s cover the basics of collecting these kinds of medals. I mention above that everyone who participates in the Olympics gets to take home one of these medals. What I didn’t mention is that some Olympics make variations of the participation medal for officials and dignitaries. In the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, for example, there were four varieties including bronze, pewter, silver and gold plated. When Jim went after this kind of medal, he opted to track down every variation of the medals that existed. Let those words sink in… Every variation!
Curious as to the price, Jim explained that these kinds of medals typically come with containers (though some do not). When they do, if they are in the box they are worth more. Jim shared that a participation medal from the Barcelona Games would be one of the less expensive ones running you about $150. It came in a little leather pouch and people just weren’t all that enamored with it. Picking up the 1936 Berlin Olympic medal, he explain it was much more interesting as it was the Olympics where Jesse Owens participated. It also came in an interesting rounded box, which Jim explained was quite desired by collectors.
The other affordable one he pointed out was the Mexico medal from 1968. That one just came in cellophane. Continuing the discussion of packaging, Jim smiled telling the story of selling one of the medal’s boxes for $6,000. Just for the box without a medal included. Some people care more about container and some just aren’t as particular. Though overall more affordable, there are participation medals that were in his collection that were worth upwards of $25,000.
Over time, Jim would amass the largest collection of participation medals in the world but when he and I spoke, he had just a few laid out for me to see. The reason? Jim sold his medal collection about two years ago for his grandchildren. When the time comes, their college tuition is now paid thanks to his years of hunting.
Jim said one of the most common questions he gets from people these days is “You sold your collection. What are you going to do now? Don’t you feel bad about it?” Jim’s answer is to tell them no and explain how he feels great about it. He had a great time collecting them, but once you get to a certain place the collection amasses so much value that you have to store it somewhere safe like a bank. This meant that over the years, he went to look at (or as his wife called it, “fondle”) the collection less and less. Ultimately it gets to the point where you are only visiting them if someone has asked you a question about a specific medal and it requires that you to go inspect your copy to answer that particular question. The collection simply wasn’t all that much a part of his day-to-day life and served more of a reference material role in his life.
What was the moment that changed things for him? Though it may not have been this specific moment that changed everything, it certainly got him thinking. He told me the story of one participation medal in particular from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. For this Olympics there were two solid gold medals made, one for the King and one for the Prince of Sweden. They weren’t given out to anyone else. This was a medal that Jim thought he would never see, but one came up on the market with a very unique story.
It turns out that the President of the organizing committee in 1912, a very famous army general, interceded when they were making these two medals. Along with those originals, he had one made for himself. Over the years the general married an English woman and the medal slowly made its way down through his family. Eventually, it came up in an auction in England and it was offered to Jim for $300,000.
Jim knew that if he pulled $300,000 out of his family’s savings, it wasn’t fair to them. He would be spending the money on something he wanted personally rather than thinking of the family’s needs and that wasn’t something he ever wanted to do. Further, due to the odd nature of the medal’s creation, he didn’t really know if this variation would hold its sale price value. Most people who collect these medals, like the winner’s medals, tend to collect one per game and don’t chase all the variations (like Jim did through the years). It was simply too much of a financial risk and he passed on the purchase. That said, Jim did know the person who eventually purchased the medal and he has seen it in that individual’s collection. Jim has sold this person a lot of other rare stuff because he’s now obsessed with getting one of everything.
For Jim as a collector going after every variation, saying “no” to this medal made him consider the broader hobby. One can almost imagine it was akin to closing the door on making that collection complete. Once you make that decision, it becomes easier to look at your grandchildren, envision their future and begin parting with your collection to make their life better. This is exactly what Jim ended up doing.
Jim could have donated this collection (like his pins) but he was quick to admit that there wasn’t really any place in the world he would have wanted to donate it to. There are very few people in the museum environment in the Olympic movement anyway, and due to his knowledge in this area, Jim consults with them regularly. They have a consortium of all the people affiliated with Olympic museums in the world and Jim has attended their meetings, even giving presentations on how to identify fake medals. He knows that they simply do not have experts within these museums in this topic matter. Further, he knows that, for the people who run the museums, this sort of thing is typically not as important to them as the number of people who come through the door. It is not their primary interest. The United States Olympic Commission is building a new museum and Jim will consult and keep an eye on them, but in the end he opted to sell the medals rather than donate them for these reasons. These days, people come to him because he is one of the few authorities in the world (probably 1 of 2 at most) that can authenticate a medal and tell you if is real.
Together we walked through some of the medals he laid out (pictured above) and I asked if there were any pieces remaining within this smaller collection that were special to him or had a more lasting connection? He said there were a lot that contained memories, especially the ones from the 1980 Moscow Olympics that he got direct from the Miracle On Ice hockey team. They even autographed the box.
He explained that he’s often very interested in a medal just based on the way the medals look. From a design standpoint he particularly liked the Lake Placid medal (pictured on its box near the top of this article) and he obtained his from an athlete who participated in that Olympics. Visually, he considers this one of the best. For me, looking them over my favorite was the 1964 Tokyo medal. I just really liked the flow of the artwork.
Jim went on to explain that there were some he received when he was an official on the team. One medal with his name engraved on it was particularly special to him. This participation medal from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics brings back memories of the opening ceremony.
Thoughts of that opening ceremony pulled the conversation away from participation medals, but the ground we covered here was really interesting so I’ll share it with you dear reader as it offers a walk behind the scenes of the Olympic experience.
It was clear that the highlight of Jim’s time with the Olympics was walking out with the athletes during the Salt Lake City Olympics. He explained it’s really remarkable when you get to have that moment. You spend so much time building up to this thing you know is coming and suddenly you find yourself standing and queuing outside the Olympic Stadium waiting to walk in. By the time you get there it feels like mere seconds on the field then you are up there in the stands with the athletes and it is over, but during those seconds it is magnificent.
Jim shared that getting appointed to an Olympic commission, in his case a commission on numismatics (coins), memorabilia and philatelic (stamps) items, was also a high point. His time on this commission showed just how well they treat people, even based on a simple committee appointment. He couldn’t imagine how people must treat the actual IOC members and shared some examples of personal experiences he’s had along these lines. They would send a chauffeured car just to drive him from Lisbon to Geneva and back. It was that kind of treatment that Jim felt a person could get used to receiving. After a bit of thought he added, “…and that explains a lot about the IOC.”
Over a series of more private stories, Jim expressed a bit of disillusionment regarding the inner workings of the governing body of the Olympics; the IOC. He shared a couple stories that spoke to the level of entitled expectations which can foster based on the treatment IOC members are used to receiving. Having worked more closely with the organization over the years, he felt it was better to simply be a spectator so you can really enjoy the games. As a spectator it becomes more about the athletes and the spirit of the games, which is where the focus should remain. It was clear, he had been disappointed more than once by the behavior some IOC representatives.
Sharing a little closing advice for this part of our conversation, Jim explained that if you go to the games, there is really one thing he suggests you absolutely must do. The one thing that is really the most spectacular part of the entire experience. That is the opening ceremony. There’s just something about being there in the crowd with all the people from around the world that really is life changing.
Jim shared the story of his wife’s first time at an Olympics. He told her in advance that this is not really a sporting event; it is an emotional experience. She went with him to the Sydney Olympics. Jim obtained tickets from the South African delegation, just after their reinstatement. They ended up in the second row of this huge coliseum. The opening starts and all the performers come out onto the field. It was at that moment that his wife turned to him and said, “Jim I now understand what you mean.” She asked him to look at her arm. She had goosebumps running up and down it.
When the guy shot the arrow to light the torch… fantastic. Jim really wanted me to hear this point. “Go to the opening ceremony. Even if it costs a lot of money it will be the most enjoyable thing you ever see. Even if it costs a lot of money, it will be with you for the rest of your life. The first one I went to is like that in my mind even to this day.”
How much to attend an opening ceremony? Tickets can run $500 to $1500. Seems reasonable to me.