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olympicfeature

Since the United States Mint offered the nation’s first Olympic coins honoring the XXVIII Summer Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles, the number of U.S. coins dedicated to the quadrennial sporting events has grown a surprising amount

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek …….
 

In every sense, the modern Olympic Games are worthy of not just one but many commemorative coin series. The number of sports. The level of competition. The sheer scale of the spectacle. The idealism.

The matter of how many has sometimes been a point of contention among legislators, numismatists, and the everyday coin collector.

The expansive collection of United States coins honoring the various Olympic events–the Summer and Winter Games, plus the Paralympics and Special Olympics–is nearly beyond the financial reach of the individual numismatist. Not even counting the myriad sets that have been spawned by numerous Olympic commemorative coin programs since the 1980s, there have been some 60 different Olympiad-related coin issues (including various finishes) released by the U.S. Mint since 1983. That figure rivals the collective total of Olympic medals (61) won by some of America’s greatest athletes, including swimmers Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz; track and field stars Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens; gymnasts Shannon Miller and Mary Lou Retton; and heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

While the Mint has offered Olympic commemorative coins during all three of the Summer and Winter Olympic Games held in the United States since 1984 (the ’84 Los Angeles Games, the ’96 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, and the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City), the Mint has also struck coins honoring the Games held abroad. These include the 1988 and 1992 Summer Games in Seoul (South Korea) and Barcelona (Spain), respectively. This year’s games in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)–which kick off today, August 5–are not represented in that number.

Still, the impressive (some might say overwhelming) number of Olympic U.S. coins could have been much higher if officials had gotten their way in the early 1980s, when the modern era of American commemorative coinage began.

On May 20, 1981, Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) introduced Senate Bill 1230, which called for five uncirculated $1 clad dollars, 16 different silver $10 coins to be struck in uncirculated and proof finishes, four different $50 gold coins each to be struck in uncirculated and proof versions, and four different $100 gold coins to be made available in Uncirculated and Proof formats. This wanton display of Olympic commemoration didn’t come to fruition mainly due to its sheer size but also because of the suspect involvement of a private marketing firm in drafting the legislation.

Had the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic commemorative coin program played out according to the rules of the original 1981 bill, a collector would have had to spend up to an estimated $8,000 in 1981 dollars to buy 53 coins–the equivalent of $22,000 today. The audacious plan was engineered by investment banking firm Lazard Freres and international oil and gas business Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OPC), the latter of which was run at the time by formidable CEO Armand Hammer. The companies had previously guided the sale of the profitable marketing campaign that promoted a massive 45-coin commemorative coin program in the Soviet Union honoring the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.

olympicsCongress eventually supported a much leaner program consisting of just two distinct silver dollar designs and the torchbearer $10 eagle, the latter becoming not only the first gold coin produced by the U.S. Mint since 1933 but also the first U.S. coin to bear a “W” mintmark indicating the West Point Mint. Be sure to read CoinWeek contributor David Provost’s extensive article series covering the highlights – and shenanigans – behind the complex 1983-84 Olympic coin situation.

The number of U.S. issues made in conjunction with the 1988 and 1992 commemorative programs honoring the Seoul and Barcelona Olympics were also kept within manageable parameters. Two distinct U.S. coin designs honor the South Korean Olympiad and three different types commemorate the Games in Spain.

Exuberance over the return of the Games to the United States prompted another ambitious commemorative program that mirrored the scope of the 1981 Senate bill. When all was said and done, the 1995-96 Olympic commemorative coin program would include 32 separate issues incorporating 16 different designs across three denominations.

The 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City inspired much patriotic fervor in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States just a few months earlier. However, that circumstance had no bearing on the number of coins the U.S. Mint released to honor the Games in Utah. Just two different designs were minted, including one on a silver dollar and the other on a $5 gold coin. To date, the four 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic coins, which include the Uncirculated and Proof versions of both designs, represent the last Olympic-themed coins the Mint has issued.

The run of U.S. Olympic coins is presumably on hiatus until at least the mid-2020s, the earliest that the United States can host another Olympic event. So until then, coin collectors have a chance to catch up with the Olympic commemorative coins already available on the secondary market. The following is a quick look at the various Olympic coins issued by the U.S. since 1983 and a breakdown of the collecting opportunities and challenges they present to collectors…

Olympic Coins Obtainable for Spot Price

1992olympics

Coin collectors who wish to buy their coins with as little numismatic premium as possible have plenty to choose from when it comes to the plethora of U.S. Mint Olympic coins. Consider the following coins, all of which can presently be bought for relatively little over their respective silver and gold spot prices:

  • 1983-P Uncirculated Discus Thrower Silver Dollar
  • 1983-D Uncirculated Discus Thrower Silver Dollar
  • 1983-S Uncirculated Discus Thrower Silver Dollar
  • 1983-S Proof Discus Thrower Silver Dollar
  • 1984-P Proof Olympic Torchbearer $10 Gold Eagle
  • 1984-D Proof Olympic Torchbearer $10 Gold Eagle
  • 1984-S Proof Olympic Torchbearer $10 Gold Eagle
  • 1984-W Uncirculated Torchbearer $10 Gold Eagle
  • 1984-W Proof Olympic Torchbearer $10 Gold Eagle
  • 1988-D Uncirculated Seoul Games Silver Dollar
  • 1988-S Proof Seoul Games Silver Dollar
  • 1988-W Uncirculated Seoul Games $5 Gold
  • 1992-D Uncirculated Barcelona Games Silver Dollar
  • 1992-S Proof Barcelona Games Silver Dollar
  • 1992-W Uncirculated Barcelona Games $5 Gold
  • 1995-P Proof Paralympics Silver Dollar
  • 1995-W Uncirculated Special Olympics Silver Dollar
  • 1996-W Uncirculated Olympic Flag Bearer $5 Gold

Olympic Half Dollars

While those placing first in competition at the Olympics score gold and the runners-up earn silver, there’s nothing third-place about the analogously “bronze” copper-nickel half dollars on which the Olympiads are honored. In fact, the copper-nickel Olympic half dollars may as well be winners as far as budget-conscious coin collectors are concerned, since they represent some of the least-expensive options for collectors:

  • 1992-P Uncirculated Barcelona Games Half Dollar
  • 1992-S Proof Barcelona Games Half Dollar
  • 1995-S Uncirculated Basketball Half Dollar
  • 1995-S Proof Basketball Half Dollar
  • 1995-S Uncirculated Baseball Half Dollar
  • 1995-S Proof Baseball Half Dollar
  • 1996-S Uncirculated Swimming Half Dollar
  • 1996-S Proof Swimming Half Dollar
  • 1996-S Uncirculated Soccer Half Dollar
  • 1996-S Proof Soccer Half Dollar

1995-96 Olympic Commemorative Coins

Perhaps no single U.S. commemorative coin program involving gold, silver and copper-nickel clad coins of a denomination greater than 25 cents was more ambitious than the collective array of Olympics coins struck in 1995 and 1996. The various Olympic coins minted during those two years resulted in a combined total of 32 different issues, including the various uncirculated and proof specimens.

While some 1995 and 1996 issues have already been listed elsewhere in this article, here is a glance at all 32 issues:

soccer1996Half Dollars
  • 1995-S Uncirculated Basketball Half Dollar
  • 1995-S Proof Basketball Half Dollar
  • 1995-S Uncirculated Baseball Half Dollar
  • 1995-S Proof Baseball Half Dollar
  • 1996-S Uncirculated Swimming Half Dollar
  • 1996-S Proof Swimming Half Dollar
  • 1996-S Uncirculated Soccer Half Dollar
  • 1996-S Proof Soccer Half Dollar
Silver Dollars
  • 1995-D Uncirculated Gymnastics Silver Dollar
  • 1995-P Proof Gymnastics Silver Dollar
  • 1995-D Uncirculated Paralympics Silver Dollar
  • 1995-P Proof Paralympics Silver Dollar
  • 1995-D Uncirculated Track & Field Silver Dollar
  • 1995-P Proof Track & Field Silver Dollar
  • 1995-D Uncirculated Cycling Silver Dollar
  • 1995-P Proof Cycling Silver Dollar
  • 1996-D Uncirculated Tennis Silver Dollar
  • 1996-P Proof Tennis Silver Dollar
  • 1996-D Uncirculated Paralympics Silver Dollar
  • 1996-P Proof Paralympics Silver Dollar
  • 1996-D Uncirculated Rowing Silver Dollar
  • 1996-P Proof Rowing Silver Dollar
  • 1996-D Uncirculated High Jump Silver Dollar
  • 1996-P Proof High Jump Silver Dollar
1996olympic5$5 Gold Half Eagles
  • 1995-W Uncirculated Torch Runner $5 Gold
  • 1995-W Proof Torch Runner $5 Gold
  • 1995-W Uncirculated Stadium $5 Gold
  • 1995-W Proof Stadium $5 Gold
  • 1996-W Uncirculated Cauldron $5 Gold
  • 1996-W Proof Cauldron $5 Gold
  • 1996-W Uncirculated Flag Bearer $5 Gold
  • 1996-W Proof Flag Bearer $5 Gold

The interesting situation surrounding the 1995-96 Olympic coins is that many of them are quite scarce today, a situation perhaps caused in part by the onslaught of coins offered by the Mint during those two years. Not only were collectors faced with the prospect of purchasing nearly three dozen distinct Olympic-themed coins, but there were also other commemorative coin programs offered at the time, including the six-coin 1995 Civil War Battlefield program, Uncirculated and Proof versions of the 1995 Special Olympics World Games and 1996 National Community Service silver dollars, not to mention the 1996 Smithsonian Institution 150th Anniversary silver dollar and $5 gold coin offerings.

The result was that Uncirculated specimens of several Olympic coins–far less popular with many customers than the Proof counterparts–wound up lost in the shuffle and simply failed to sell very well. For example, the 1996-S Uncirculated and Proof soccer half dollars have total distribution figures of just 52,836 and 112,412 pieces, respectively. Meanwhile, all of the 1996 Uncirculated Olympic silver dollars saw anemic sales, making all four of those dollar issues five to six times more valuable today than they would have been if they sold as well as their respective proof counterparts.

Olympic Coin Sets

Most Olympic coins were issued by the U.S. Mint on an individual basis, but they were also commonly sold in sets of two or more coins, depending on the year and combination of designs and denominations. Larger sets, such as those incorporating six or more coins, are usually housed in rich, velvet-lined wood (typically cherry wood) boxes, and all products are packaged with a certificate of authenticity.

The 1995-96 Olympic coins were generally sold in various 2-, 4-, 8- and 16-coin sets, and there was also an enormous 32-coin set [http://www.ebay.com/itm/1995-96-Atlanta-Olympics-32-Coin-Gold-Silver-Proof-Unc-Set-Complete-sku0857-/391206445735?hash=item5b15b8a2a7:g:Wo0AAOxyjP1R02Ls ] incorporating every proof and uncirculated coin offered in the program. By every measure, this was the largest and most expensive commemorative coin product the U.S. Mint had ever sold, with a pre-issue price of $2,261. The set, offered in an elaborate locking wooden box with velvet-lined coin trays, is considerably rare as only 160 were sold.

Here’s a look at the various Olympic U.S. coin sets and what they include:

1983-84 Los Angeles Olympic Coins
  • 1983-84 2-Coin Proof Dollars
  • 1983-84 6-Coin Set – One Each ’83 & ’84 Dollars and Uncirculated and Proof ’84 Gold $10
  • 1983 3-Coin P-D-S Uncirculated Dollars
  • 1984 3-Coin P-D-S Uncirculated Dollars
  • 1983-84 3-Coin Gold and Silver Uncirculated Set with One Each ’83 and ’84 Dollars and Uncirculated ’84 $10 Gold
  • 1983-84 3-Coin Gold and Silver Proof Set with One Each ’83 and ’84 Dollars and ’84 $10 Gold
1988 Seoul Olympic Coins
  • 1988 2-Coin Uncirculated Dollar and $5 Gold
  • 1988 2-Coin Proof Dollar and $5 Gold
  • 1988 4-Coin Proof and Uncirculated Dollars and $5 Gold
1992olympicset1992 Barcelona Olympic Coins
  • 1992 2-Coin Uncirculated Half Dollar and Dollar
  • 1992 2-Coin Proof Half Dollar and Dollar
  • 1992 3-Coin Uncirculated Half Dollar, Dollar, and $5 Gold
  • 1992 3-Coin Proof Half Dollar, Dollar, and $5 Gold
  • 1992 6-Coin Uncirculated and Proof Half Dollars, Dollars, and $5 Gold
1995-96 Atlanta Olympic Coins
  • 1995 4-Coin Uncirculated Basketball Half Dollar, Gymnastics and Paralympics Dollars, and Torch Bearer $5 Gold
  • 1995 4-Coin Proof Basketball Half Dollar, Gymnastics and Paralympics Dollars, and Torch Bearer $5 Gold
  • 1995 2-Coin Proof Gymnastics and Paralympics Dollars
  • 1995 2-Coin Proof Track & Field and Cycling Dollars
  • 1995 Young Collector Uncirculated Basketball Half Dollar
  • 1995 Young Collector Uncirculated Baseball Half Dollar
  • 1995-96 4-Coin Proof Half Dollars
  • 1995-96 16-Coin Set of All Uncirculated Coins
  • 1995-96 16-Coin Set of All Proof Coins
  • 1995-96 32-Coin Set of All Uncirculated and Proof Coins
  • 1996 2-Coin Proof Paralympics and Tennis Dollars
  • 1996 2-Coin Proof Rowing and High Jump Dollars
  • 1996 Young Collector Uncirculated Swimming Half Dollar
  • 1996 Young Collector Uncirculated Soccer Half Dollar
2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Coins
  • 2002 2-Coin Proof Dollar and $5 Gold
  • 2002 4-Coin Proof and Uncirculated Dollars and $5 Gold

Special Olympics World Games Silver Dollar

No article about Olympic coins would be complete without a tip of the hat to the 1995 Special Olympics World Games silver dollar, a coin notable in its own right. The coin features a left-facing, side-profile bust of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was the sister of President John F. Kennedy and Senators Robert and Edward “Teddy” Kennedy. Shriver, credited on the coin for founding the Special Olympics in 1968, became the first living female to be profiled on U.S. coinage when she appeared on the obverse of the commemorative silver dollar.

The reverse design on the coin is anchored by a single rose and a champion’s ribbon with a medal depicting the Special Olympics logo. On the upper-right portion of the reverse is an inscription bearing the following quote by Shriver: “‘AS WE HOPE FOR THE BEST IN THEM, HOPE IS REBORN IN US.’ EUNICE KENNEDY SHRIVER, FOUNDER.” Uncirculated specimens of the coin were minted at the West Point Mint while proofs were made in Philadelphia.

While the coin was well-regarded by many, it was also the subject of controversy upon its release. Some critics voiced disapproval of placing a living individual on a coin – an honor usually reserved for deceased persons. Shriver passed away at the age of 88 in 2009, meaning she would have seen her own image on the silver dollar for some 14 years.

Additionally, there were individuals who felt Shriver’s appearance on the commemorative dollar perpetuated a long-held opinion among some that Shriver unduly received sole credit for establishing the Special Olympics. The origins of the internationally-known organization date back to 1962, when Shriver started a day camp for children with intellectual disabilities at her Maryland home. However, the concept for the Olympic-style sporting event honored on the coin is widely attributed to Chicago recreation teacher Ann Burke.

At the age of 23, Burke, along with several others (including Shriver), helped stage the first Special Olympics event at Soldier Field in Chicago. That first Special Olympics event, held on July 20, 1968, hosted 1,000 athletes from 26 states and parts of Canada. Shriver’s role in establishing the first Special Olympics event included gaining (initially reluctant) support among Chicago’s political and social leadership, and helping underwrite the event through the non-profit Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation, which provides funds to help those with intellectual disabilities.

The Special Olympics is an organization designed to help children and adults with mental challenges develop social skills and self-confidence. Today, more than 4.5 million athletes and one million coaches and volunteers are involved with Special Olympics programs in more than 170 countries. Special Olympics Games are held every two years, alternating with Summer and Winter Games. Individuals participate free of charge and can play in more than two-dozen different sports, including football, cross-country skiing, golf, and aquatics.

Key Dates In The Olympic Coin Series

As most modern commemorative coins go, the Olympic coins issued by the United States since 1983 are generally common and sell for about as much, if not less, than their original issue prices when adjusted for inflation. However, not all of the Olympic coins should be considered poor investments when analyzed over the long term. The big winners among U.S. Olympic coinage are found among some of the Uncirculated and Proof issues released in the 1995-96 coin program.

Some of the pricing improvements among several of the Olympic coins is influenced by prevailing bullion market changes since the 1990s. Surely, anybody who bought new gold coins from the U.S. Mint when the yellow metal was trading for less than $400 an ounce and still has those coins today made a tidy profit over the long term. Yet many of the 1995-96 Olympic coins that are trading for a good deal more than issue price are doing so not because of upward trends in the metals market but because of the relative scarceness of those issues.

Take, for example, the copper-nickel clad half dollars. Uncirculated specimens of the 1996-S Swimming half dollar and 1996-S Soccer half dollar, neither offering even a single milligram of silver or gold, now sell for upwards of $100. The Uncirculated 1996-S Swimming half dollar is the key among the eight different half dollar issues, with a total distribution of just 49,533 pieces.

pcgstennisThe Uncirculated 1996-S Soccer half dollar follows closely behind in overall scarcity, with a mintage of 52,836 coins.

Among silver dollars, the 1996-D Paralympics silver dollar has the lowest mintage, with only 14,497 pieces distributed. Though the Paralympics dollar is the technical key issue for the 1995-96 Olympic silver dollars in terms of mintage alone, all of the other Uncirculated 1996 Olympics silver dollars, not to mention the Uncirculated 1995-D Cycling dollar, have total production figures of less than 20,000 pieces each.

The Olympic $5 gold coins also saw low mintages, with the Uncirculated 1996-W Flag Bearer piece serving as the key not just among the eight different $5 Olympic gold issues but also for the entire 1995-96 Olympic coin series. Just 9,174 Uncirculated 1996-W Flag Bearer $5 gold pieces were distributed, besting by a mere 36 pieces lower the mintage figure for the second-scarcest coin in the 1995-96 Olympic coin program: the Uncirculated 1996-W Cauldron $5 gold coin, which had a total production of 9,210 pieces.

Incidentally, several U.S. Mint products released during that same period also performed remarkably well in the secondary market, including the 1995-W American Eagle 5-Piece 10th Anniversary Proof Set, which includes the 1995-W American Silver Eagle. It was originally included as a “free” bonus in the American Gold Eagle Proof Set, which became the 10th such annual set since the American Eagle bullion program was launched in 1986. Originally offered by the Mint for a price of $999, the 1995-W 10th Anniversary 5-Piece Proof Sets are now worth over $7,400.

Other vintage 1995 and 1996 U.S. Mint products that have also gone on to exceed usual price performance expectations are the prestige and silver proof sets of that period. In all cases, values for these proof sets have increased only because relatively few of these products were made in 1995 and 1996. It’s a consequence of the unusual circumstances behind the entire numismatic situation at the Mint in the mid-1990s. So many products were available that collectors couldn’t decide what to buy – or, rather, they couldn’t afford to purchase everything the Mint was offering.

The fallout of lower distribution figures for many of the products even spurred the United States Mint to issue a press release in 1997 informing the public that several 1995-96 Olympic coin issues had low production figures to date. Though the press release was pitched as something of a public service announcement, it was intended to spur collectors on to spend more money on the coins, many of which were still available for sale directly from the Mint.

The multitude of individual Olympic coins and Olympic coin sets siphoned attention away from the five-piece silver proof sets and other Mint offerings, resulting in lower production figures for many of the more traditional coin products. Meanwhile, Uncirculated Olympic coin issues often lost the race to buyers’ wallets in favor of the glitzier Proofs. Coins depicting popular sports such as basketball and gymnastics were generally in higher demand than issues honoring events with smaller fan bases, such as tennis and rowing.

What Can Olympic Coin Programs of the Past Teach Us?

At the end of the day, the few Olympic coins that struck investment gold did so because the market was overwhelmed with offerings, and some pieces simply escaped numismatic attention at the time they were originally offered. The base of coin collectors in the mid-1990s enjoyed far better economic prosperity on the whole than they do today. Still, most hobbyists could not keep up with all of the products the U.S. Mint was offering at the time.

The situation is just as frustrating for coin collectors today, except instead of nearly three dozen Olympic coins filling the pages of the annual U.S. Mint catalog, we have webpage after webpage of America the Beautiful Quarters, First Spouse coins, different combinations of proof sets, and a litany of silver and gold coins in varying arrays of Proof, Reverse Proof, Burnished, Uncirculated and other finishes. By one estimate, it would have cost a coin collector nearly $20,000 to buy an example of every coin straight from the United States Mint catalog in 2015.

Should the United States score another Olympic Games in 2024 or at any point thereafter, it is reasonable to assume that the U.S. Mint will once again issue several commemorative coins honoring the occasion.

But will they embark on a large-scale program reminiscent of the cumbersome 1995-96 Atlanta coin program? Or will they opt for the svelte elegance of the 2002 Salt Lake City coin program? Perhaps if the Mint chooses the less-is-more approach on this front, then future Olympic coin programs will be better received by collectors and the general public, thus reaping more rewards in the form of surcharges benefitting groups such as the United States Olympic Committee.

Only time will tell how successful the next Olympic coin program will be for the U.S. Mint, Olympic organizations, and numismatists. As far as that goes, we have a while to sit back and wait, for the next time an Olympic cauldron is again aflame on U.S. soil won’t be for at least another eight years.
 


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