LONDON Winning a gold medal is the aspiration of all Olympics athletes yet its physical value is a token compared to the cash bonuses many nations pay winners and the impact on an athlete's brand value.
Gold medals at the London Games are made largely of silver with a thin gold coat and some copper which values them at $706 by current prices, according to the World Gold Council.
In fact, for the first time, the silver content in the 2012 medals is worth more than the gold.
Although all that glitters is not gold, winning a gold medal can give athletes the Midas touch with sponsors, or, for some medalists, offer an attractive resale value.
Peter Carlisle, managing director of Olympics and Action Sports at sport consultancy Octagon, said the marketing value of a gold medal varies from sport to sport and country to country but could translate into sponsorships worth millions of pounds.
Swimming, track and field, and gymnastics attract the most interest from sponsors.
"British athletes winning gold at London can expect over the four years to Rio 2016 to be earning into the 7 figures," Carlisle told Reuters.
"But it really does need to be a gold medal, not a silver or bronze, to have that marketing impact, unless there is an exceptional story behind the athlete."
In the near term, athletes with the golden touch can expect a handout from their country as many of the 204 National Olympic Committees have financial incentive schemes for gold winners.
Singaporean athletes are being offered one of the biggest incentives with an offer of 1 million Singapore dollars ($800,000) for a gold. Singapore has never won gold at the Olympics.
STAMP AND GLORY
The United States will pay 15,000 pounds ($25,000) to gold medalists while Australians will receive A$20,000 ($20,900), feature on an Australia stamp and get a flight upgrade home.
Russia, battling Britain to keep its third place in the gold medal table, has promised athletes 85,000 pounds ($135,000) for golds while there are reports Italy has offered 116,000 pounds ($182,000).
China, which is jostling with the United States for top of the gold medals tally, has not released details of financial incentives but the Chinese language Sports Weekly reported they were likely to hand gold winners $51,000.
India has promised coaching jobs to athletes who win medals.
British athletes, however, will have to settle for national glory and their image on a stamp rather than cash.
British Olympic chiefs are of the view that financial rewards do not significantly impact the motivation of athletes to reach the podium and it is their desire to compete at the Olympics that is their main driving force.
While many athletes treasure their gold medals, others give them to charity or sporting foundations, or even sell them.
British Olympian Daley Thompson gave his two decathlon gold medals from the 1980 and 1984 Games to his training partners.
"If it wasn't for them, it would not have been as much fun," he told Reuters recently.
Ukrainian heavyweight boxer Wladimir Klitschko sold his medal from the 1996 Atlanta Games for $1 million in March this year with the funds going to the Klitschko Brothers Foundation which promotes sports among children.
Cuban boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa Toledano sold the gold medal he won at the 2004 Athens Games to support his family before he defected to Germany in 2006.
Such sales have created a market for Olympic gold medals with mixed selling prices.
"Medals do come up for sale every four years in the lead-up to an Olympics when interest in all Olympic memorabilia is high and they tend to come from deceased estates," Bob Wilcock, vice-chairman of the Society of Olympics Collectors, told Reuters.
"Like coins they have a greater value than the gold content but it is very much the story behind the medal that makes its value. Older medals tend to be worth more as there are fewer. Gold medals were only handed out from 1904 onwards."
Last week, Bonhams auction house in London sold two gold medals in a batch of Olympic memorabilia from the first double gold winner, Australian rower Henry "Bobby" Pearce, who won at the 1928 and 1932 Games. The lot sold for 49,250 pounds ($77,350).
A solid Olympic gold won at the 1908 Games by British rower Raymond Etherington-Smith was also put up for sale by his family recently and is expected to raise up to 7,000 pounds ($11,000) at Christie's auction house in London on September 3.
There have not been solid gold medals since the 1912 Stockholm Games and the 400 gram (14 ounce) medals at London would cost 25 million pounds ($40 million) if made entirely of the precious metal.
Modern medals need to have a minimum of 92.5 percent silver content and at least six grams of gold, International Olympic Committee rules state, although the host city gets to choose its design.
The current world record price for an Olympic medal was achieved in November 2010 when a gold won by Mark Wells, a member of the 1980 "miracle on ice" U.S. men's hockey team, was sold for $310,700, a spokeswoman for Christie's said.
It was the first time any of the 1980 hockey gold medals were offered at a public auction.
"It is hard to put a value on medals as they come up so rarely. They are such a sentimental piece of memorabilia and families tend to keep them," the spokeswoman said.
"But there is always interest in Olympic medals and particularly in Britain this year with the London Games."
(Editng by Jason Neely)