Meet J'lem-born Omer Arbel, designer of Olympic medals

Israeli-born Omer Arbel shares his thoughts on his creations.

Gold medal 311 (photo credit: .)
Gold medal 311
(photo credit: .)
VANCOUVER – Many months before any athletic competition was held at the 2010 winter games, another contest was held to determine which artist would design the 882 medals give to the victors. The winner was Jerusalem-born designer Omer Arbel.
“It’s a great honor,” Arbel told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s something I don’t think will even happen again in my life.”
Arbel, an architect and industrial designer, sought to convey the great honor of winning an Olympic medal through his design proposal, submitted nearly two years ago.
His work generally focuses on making large-scale compositions and even mass-produced objects unique so that they are valued rather than seen as uniform and disposable. While Olympic medals hardly suffer for not being valued, it was important to Arbel that each one be individual and original in the context of a cohesive theme.
“Each athlete’s story is unique but each athlete is connected to each through a larger Olympic ideal,” he explained.
He also wanted the medals to evoke the emotional and personal aspects of the Olympic journey for each owner, and have a distinctive shape. He initially proposed a “locket” concept in which a two-pieced medal, held together by magnets, could be designed to hold a lucky charm or memento that the athlete connected with his victory.
“It speaks to the profound emotions associated with winning an Olympic medal,” he explained, pointing to the years of sacrifice, need for belief in one’s self and support from family and friends. “Often winning the Olympic medal is the culmination of that chapter of their life.”
Though the International Olympic Committee jurors eventually ruled out the locket idea due to cost and other constraints – Arbel diplomatically called it the most “layered” process he’d participated in – they supported the idea of each medal being unique and having a distinctive form, particularly one that related specifically to the Olympics’ location.
The finished product is an undulating surface that reflects the topography of the province of British Columbia. Super-imposed on it is a piece of artwork by local aboriginal artist Corinne Hunt, another finalist in the design competition. Each medal has a segment of her piece etched on it, so only by putting them all together could the full piece be rendered.
The medals, at 170 grams each, are among the heaviest in Olympic history. Though they have to follow certain guidelines that the International Olympic Committee lays out, they have some flexibility with dimensions.
According to Dan Mallett, the program manager of the Olympic and Paralympic medals project for the Royal Canadian Mint, athletes were surveyed about what dimensions they would prefer for the Olympic medals they hoped to receive.
“The athletes basically wanted heavy metals. They felt that was more worthy of their effort,” he said.
The public is also concerned about whether it’s a substantial medal, often focusing on the value of the precious metal and whether they’re solid gold. They’re not.
The gold metal is gold-plated over silver, metals worth $500. The sterling silver metal is worth $250 and the copper – used in place of bronze to give it a more distinctive, less yellow, color – comes to a mere $50.
But Mallett stresses that the value of each medallion must take into account the many hours of labor and creative costs, pushing their cost up to $4-5,000 a piece. Though he adds that truly, “They’re priceless.”
Mallett was instrumental in making the medals available to the viewing public for the first time in Olympic history, aiming to heighten viewers’ connection to the competitions they are watching.
“If you know something about the medal that’s going around the neck of your athlete, I think you’ll appreciate it more and you’ll appreciate the experience more,” he said, adding that he hopes seeing the medals on display will also inspire future athletes.
His efforts have been rewarded by an overwhelming response as thousands of visitors line up for as much as four hours each day to see the medals and hold them in their own hands. (Among the most frequent reactions are amazement over their heft and shape.)
Some 6,000 people a day have visited the temporary Royal Mint outpost in downtown Vancouver, and most seem to think the wait to touch the medals was worth it. They also get treated to other displays on the mint’s output, gold holdings and global reach – the mint coins money for 74 other countries, including Israel.
When it comes to Arbel’s own Israel connection, he said he considered his roots important but in no way defining of his work.
“[Hebrew] is my first language. When I dream, that’s the language that my dreams are,” said Arbel, who moved to Canada with his parents at age 13. But he added that his work “transcends language and place.”
While being Israeli “is a big part of my background and identity,” he stressed, “I’m a combination of many different things, one of which is Israeli.”
And for the athletes who wear his medals, there is no distinction onthe basis of their national origin – they are instead distinguished bythe engraved name of their sport and the etched fragment of Hunt’sartwork.
“It’s pretty powerful to see them,” Arbel said of watching his creationhanded out at medal ceremonies. “It’s pretty powerful to see themaround people’s necks.”