Olympic medals made from recycled electronics finally get a chance to shine

Chinese air rifle shooter Qian Yang became the first athlete to receive a gold medal at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Games just hours after the first events kicked off on Saturday. She’s also the first-ever athlete to receive a gold medal made from recycled electronics.

With the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee announcing more than four years ago its intention to make the medals using precious metals harvested from donated electronics, and Japan’s Olympics delayed by 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tokyo Games’ first award ceremony using the unique medals has been a long time coming.

During the medal-making campaign that asked members of the public to donate discarded devices, the organizing committee was deluged with everything from smartphones and digital cameras to handheld gaming consoles and laptops.

In just 18 months the campaign received 47,488 tons of equipment, as well as more than 5 million mobile phones handed in at stores run by local cell phone provider NTT.

Its quest to make some 5,000 medals for Japan’s Olympic and Paralympic Games got off to a great start when organizers reached the targeted amount of bronze of around 2,700 kg within just 14 months of the campaign’s launch. After 18 months, the committee revealed that 28.4 kg of gold (93.7% of the targeted 30.3 kg) and 3,500 kg of silver (85.4% of the targeted 4,100 kg) had been collected from donations, with the campaign able to reach its goals by the time it ended in March 2019.

Helping to launch the campaign four years ago, Japanese Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Kohei Uchimura said, “Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic medals will be made out of people’s thoughts and appreciation for avoiding waste. I think there is an important message in this for future generations.”

This year’s Games is the first Olympics and Paralympics to have all of the awarded medals created from recycled materials, though it’s worth noting that the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, took a similar path, with 30% of the sterling silver used to make the gold and silver medals extracted from recycled materials that included old car parts, mirror surfaces, and X-ray plates. Whether Paris 2024 follows the example of the two preceding Olympic Games remains to be seen.

As for Chinese champion Yang, the athlete scored another first on Saturday when she became the first-ever Olympic winner to present her own medal by taking it from a disinfected tray and putting it around her neck — a procedure deemed necessary for the entirety of this Games as part of coronavirus measures.

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