In the late 1800s the world decided that it would be a good idea to bring back the Olympics. The idea was that international friendly competition would bring peace, unity, and unlimited marketing opportunities to a world badly in need of all three.
As with most festivals, things got bigger and “better” over the years. Peace and unity got lip service; unlimited marketing opportunity took home all the gold medals and then some.
The first of the modern day Olympics was held in 1896 and the organizers hadn’t had their medal epiphany yet. So the winners got silver medals and an olive branch, and the runners-up got a copper medal and a laurel branch. Very historic.
241 athletes from 14 nations participated in 43 events (9 sports) at the 1896 games in Athens.
At the games in 1900, prizes (like an Apple iphone) were given instead of twigs, branches, and medals.
Somewhere between the turn of the century games and the 1904 games, the IOC agreed that it was too soon to give out Nike contracts to the winners and instituted the medal system.
The current medals represent the first three Ages of Man according to Greek mythology: the Golden Age (when men lived among the gods), the Silver Age (when youth lasted a hundred years), and the Bronze Age (the age of the great heroes). The Age of Consumerism and the Age of iAppleEverything were intentionally overlooked.