Angela Merkel has her duties as Federal Chancellor of Germany. Her day is probably full to bursting. And yet in 2014, with her overflowing schedule, she travelled to Rio for the World Cup final. Before the big World Cup debacle, she even visited the 2018 German team at their training camp.
Let’s be honest, the older Chancellor surrounded by the young athletes looks more than a little strange in the press photos – and the German people didn’t really get anything out of this meeting either. But as a PR move for a politician struggling for approval, this visit to ‘our boys’ was unbeatable, because despite all of the cheating and doping scandals, sport is regarded as a positive thing nowadays; so positive that it cannot only be used to boost the image of politicians, but also the sales figures for coins.
How It All Began: The 1972 Olympia Games in Munich
If we take a look at early German commemorative coins, it becomes clear that, until the 1970s, Germany defined itself as the land of poets and thinkers. Most of the coin designs are dedicated to literary figures. Philosophers, scientists and visual art were just about allowed, on the side-lines. And then came the Olympics and its funding gap.
The 1972 Munich Olympic Games cost 1.582 billion deutsche marks. The organising committee intended to raise this sum without the German taxpayer. So they organised several lotteries, sold the television broadcasting rights and collected donations. But even after the admission fees were added, there was still a funding gap of 831 million marks. And that was an enormous amount of money in the late 1960s!
Of course, there were also plans to mint Olympic coins. These were mainly commemorative coins in the classical sense, i.e. coins that you could get at the bank for their face value and, in theory, could be used as a means of payment everywhere. The profit that the state generates from these coins was calculated – and still is today – from the nominal value minus minting, material and logistics costs. A profit of 100 million was budgeted for the planned 30 million Olympic coins worth 10 DM each.
In January, the first 6 million Olympic coins arrived at the bank counters. They sold out on the very same day they were issued. And of course, nobody used them to pay with! Immediately, the organising committee stepped it up a notch: this time, four series would be issued with a total mintage of 100 million pieces, increasing the profit made from the coins to 250 million deutsche marks.
A Diplomatic Faux-Pas Results in Great Press for the Olympic Coins
The real twist in the tale was that the first 10 million Olympic coins were minted with an inscription that had to be changed immediately. In 1972, the GDR and the FRG entered the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games separately for the first time. The GDR therefore protested against the coin inscription, which translates as: ‘Games of the XX Olympiad 1972 in Germany’. The FRG was not Germany, but just a part of it, they argued. And so the inscriptions had to be changed.
This was done right away. And soon, many German magazines were reporting that collectors were now paying 25 DM for the coins from the first series, which were originally purchased for 10 DM. And that yes, for a series with all four mint marks, you could get 110 marks! No wonder everyone was getting involved in the speculation around the Olympic coins back then. In 1969, the FRG was home to 60.46 million people, so in other words, there were 1.65 Olympic coins for every German citizen. And that’s including babies and the elderly.
Now in those days, there were 4,500 journalists accredited as Olympic correspondents. The 20,000 copies of the daily Olympic press bulletin sold like hot cakes. And of course, even back then, it didn’t just include reports about the sporting events. Everyone was looking desperately for topics and the coin story was far too good not to write about. Soon, the whole world knew how successful the German Olympic coins had been.
That’s why, since 1972, Olympic coins have been an integral source of funding for the Olympic Games, with the Olympic Committee of course also playing an essential role. It’s no coincidence that there’s an Olympic commission in Lausanne especially for collectibles. Coins (and postage stamps) have only become less important because the amounts of money that can be made from selling television rights have increased so exponentially.
Football? Who Cares About Football?
Back then, the idea that the same thing could be done for a FIFA World Cup didn’t occur to anyone. When the German football team won the World cup in 1974, the FRG minted its commemorative coins in honour of the 25th anniversary of the FRG and Immanuel Kant. The FIFA World Cup? No chance!
The only numismatic evidence of this event is the official FIFA medals and the coins issued by active coin distributors on behalf of countries like Benin, Haiti or Liberia on the occasion of the World Cup.
And Then Came the Summer Fairy Tale…
And that was it. For about three decades, sport no longer featured on German coins. While the German Bundesliga developed into a global player, the government, refrained from using any sport motifs.
That all changed in 2003. Another FIFA World Cup was to be hosted on German soil in 2006, which was expected to be the crowning moment in the career of one intelligent champion of German football. We’re talking about Franz Beckenbauer, the captain of the victorious German team of 1974. In 1972, he would have been the right age to experience the Olympic coins. We don’t know whether it was actually Franz Beckenbauer who came up with the idea of the coins, but we certainly wouldn’t put it past him.
The organising committee of the World Cup in Germany had actually planned to put on more than a major sporting event. The World Cup was to be accompanied by an extensive arts and culture programme, the cost of which was budgeted at 30 million euros. But there wasn’t enough money.
Let’s think back to 2003: at that time, there were heated discussions going on all over Germany about how even more money could be saved at the expense of the poorest of the poor, the long-term unemployed, of whom there were sadly far too many after the German reunification. The ‘Hartz IV’ unemployment benefit was passed into law on 24 December 2003. In those years, an SPD (Social Democratic Party) chancellor laid the foundations for Germany to become the low-wage country it is today, where people have jobs that they can no longer make a living from, even if they work full time. In this politically heated situation, any discussion of how to finance a 30-million-euro arts and culture programme with taxpayers’ money simply wasn’t politically tenable.
So, the organising committee proposed approving and producing World Cup commemorative coins in a fast-track procedure. The department responsible for coins was convinced but in Germany, it is the finance minister who is ultimately responsible for decisions about the issue of (commemorative) coins. And that’s how the matter became political. In order to gain political approval, the committee responsible for the arts and culture programme included a representative from each of the four parliamentary groups of the German Bundestag, so that the taxpayers’ money would be under political supervision. And then the cultural politicians were annoyed because it wasn’t them but their colleagues from the sports committee who got to sit on this committee (and probably watch football matches).
The four issues, for which 16,550,000 pieces were minted, raised enough money to cover the 30 million euros for the art and culture programme. Of this amount, 24 million was used for almost 50 projects, while the rest was returned.
By the way, the proceeds generated from the sale of the 100 euro gold coin, amounting to 20 million euros, were not added to this pool. This sum was specifically intended to co-finance the gala at the beginning of the event.
A Glance at The Motifs
Let’s take this opportunity to take a closer look at the motifs that featured on the coins. Or rather, the motifs that didn’t feature. One thing that’s missing on all the coin designs is the athletes themselves. To look at the motifs chosen for the World Cup coins, you’d think that football only involved the ball itself and not any feet kicking it.
This was a seamless continuation of the aesthetic chosen for the Olympia coins of 1972: just one of those coins featured two stylised, non-gendered athletes, and you couldn’t even be sure which sport they were supposed to represented.
The First Clearly Discernible Athlete on a Coin is a Woman
And so, the very first athlete to be clearly connected to a specific sport on a German coin was a woman. A javelin thrower, to be precise. She was depicted on the commemorative coin in 2009 on the occasion of the 12th World Championships in Athletics in Berlin.
Why did the motif suddenly change so drastically? It’s quite simple: this time, Federal Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück had plainly asked the public what they wanted to see on a sports coin. 4,000 collectors responded that they – as reported by the magazine ‘prägefrisch’ – ‘wanted a physical motif, preferably an athlete throwing a javelin or the Berlin Olympic stadium as the venue’. Their wish was granted: the jury chose the design by Bodo Broschat, which met these very criteria.
If You Want to Sell, You Must Be Willing to Adapt
And because the Ministry of Finance had learned by then that commemorative coins could be used to raise money for one thing or another, it was now happy to follow the guidelines set by collectors: thus, the commemorative coin for the ‘41st Alpine World Ski Championships’ from 2011 depicts a slalom racer, the commemorative coin honouring the ‘FIFA Women’s World Cup’ from the same year depicts a footballer and the commemorative coin celebrating the 50th anniversary of the sports foundation ‘Deutsche Sporthilfe’ depicts a group of runners.
A Kowtow to Fashionable Sports
One example that wonderfully illustrates how sport motifs are now aimed at a young audience is the new 10 euro series issued by the FRG. Entitled ‘Luft bewegt’ (Moving Air), the series currently pays homage to the latest trend sports: paragliding and land sailing.
What We Still Haven’t Seen on German Coins
Something that has never been depicted on German coins is a real athlete – either living or dead. And there’s a good reason for that, at least when it comes to living athletes: the fact is, a sports star can go from being an idol to the subject of a gossip column very quickly.
Just think of the tennis star who is now more famous for his affairs than his hard-hitting serve. Or the football king convicted of tax evasion. And let’s not forget the football star who was held up as a shining example of integration until he showed an affinity for the Turkish government that the citizens of this country, who are accustomed to German democracy, just couldn’t comprehend.
In other words: at the time when a sports star is an idol, they are still young enough to have a long life ahead of them. Such a long life offers plenty of opportunities to do some embarrassing things. And do we really want a sports star who is addicted to drugs, evading tax, doping or f***ing around (we can’t print that word in full, but you know what we mean) on an official German coin? After all, these coins can’t be un-minted!
A Glimpse Over the Fence
Beyond the wall, sport played a crucial role in demonstrating the superiority of the socialist system in international competition. Despite the lack of foreign currency exchange, there was always enough money for sports funding in the GDR. Just think of the country’s incredible accomplishments at the Olympic Games! In 1972 for example, when the GDR competed separately from the FRG for the first time, the country, with its population of around 17 million, won 66 medals (including 20 gold medals). The GDR therefore ended up in third place in the medals table, behind the Soviet Union and the USA but ahead of the FRG, which won 40 medals (including 13 gold medals).
However, sport motifs did not feature on GDR coins, with one exception: in 1988, shortly before the fall of the GDR, one single coin was minted with a sports motif. The coin was minted to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the German sports federation and depicted three runners.
What About Austria?
Austria defines itself as an ‘Alpine republic’. There, sporting events usually take place on two skis. And in fact, the designs on Austrian coinage are virtually dominated by skiing motifs.
In 1964, the Vienna Hauptmünzamt (state mint) produced an Olympic coin on the occasion of the IX Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck. Just one, mind you. The 50 schilling (= 3.60 euros) coin was produced in a mintage of 2,900,000 pieces, and it depicts a ski jumper who has just jumped off the Bergisel ski jump, with the Tyrolean mountain landscape in the background.
The XII Olympic Winter Games in 1976 in Innsbruck were celebrated rather differently. After all, the Olympic coins in Germany had demonstrated that these coins could be used to cover at least some of the costs of the Olympic Games. The government ordered 20.5 million coins worth 100 schillings each (= 14.2 DM = 7.1 euros). There were four types, three of which were not only minted at the Vienna Hauptmünzamt (state mint), but also at the Hall Mint, which had been reactivated especially for this purpose. This increased the number of coins that collectors had to buy in order to have every type in their collection from four to seven, without incurring any major costs.
To understand how high this number is, we have to put the mintage into perspective by once again comparing it with the population. Whereas at the Munich Olympics there were 1.65 Olympic coins for every citizen, at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Games there were 2.7.
And the motifs? Well, anything but people. The image of the downhill skier featured on one of the coin types is so abstract that you can barely recognise him as such.
Under the Leadership of the Austrian National Bank
On 1 January 1989, both the Austrian mint and the privilege of minting coins was handed over to the Austrian National Bank. The latter turned its mint into a profit centre that would be less concerned with political party slogans and much more committed to collectors. It was just six years before Vienna launched its own attempt at producing Olympic coins. Not because of an event happening in Austria, of course. In 1995, the Austrian Mint tried to tap into the popular field of collection by issuing a collectible series to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games.
There were two crucial differences between these coins and all the Olympic coins produced before. Firstly, the Olympic Games were not being held in the country at the time and secondly, these coins were exclusively collector’s items, which were sold in proof quality for far more than their face value. The result: the relatively low mintage of 100,000 pieces did not sell. Almost one third of all the coins minted had to be melted down again. By way of comparison: for each type of the 1976 Olympic coins, one collector’s edition was produced in proof quality, and the mintages of these sought-after pieces ranged between 179,000 and 373,600.
Nevertheless, this series is significant because it was the first time a real, specific athlete was depicted on a coin from a German-speaking county. Thomas Stangassinger, an idol of the 1990s! He made it onto the podium 37 times. In 1999, he won the World Cup in slalom and then in 1994 he won gold at the Olympics in the same discipline. But take a close look at the design. If you don’t already know who is depicted on the coin, it could be any skier. The other coin from the same series depicts a nameless gymnast with a ribbon. Any connection between the coin and the specific person is therefore very limited: if Mr Stangassinger, who is now around 55 years old, becomes embroiled in a media scandal, only a small minority would remember that the Austrian National Bank once deemed him worthy of representing Austria.
Since then, the only references to sport in Austrian numismatics have been on commemorative 5 euro pieces, which are available to buy for their face value at banks: one coin was issued in 2004 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Austrian Football Association and in 2005 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Austrian Ski Association. Two coins were issued in 2008 in honour of the XIII European Football Championships in Austria and Switzerland, in 2010 to mark the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver and in 2012 on the occasion of the 42nd Alpine World Ski Championships in 2013 in Schladming.
Notice anything? In 2010, an attempt was made to take advantage of the general Olympic coin collecting hysteria in order to market a product commemorating the Olympic Games taking place at the time. However, the coin minted on this occasion is considered a turning point in the field of collection ‘Olympic coins’. The state had become too greedy. The Royal Canadian Mint produced so many different products that no collector was able to afford them all. Many of them stopped collecting Olympic coins entirely.
And since then, the Austrian Mint hasn’t minted any more coins to celebrate any Olympic Games hosted in other countries.
Sport in Switzerland
A glance at the coinage of Switzerland completes the picture. The country’s first ‘sports coin’ was not minted until 2003 – prior to that, any javelins or crossbows depicted on coins were not sports equipment, but rather weapons of war.
The motifs on the few pieces minted since then focus on Swiss people’s favourite sports: downhill skiing, as depicted on the two commemorative coins produced on the occasion of the 37th Alpine World Ski Championships in St. Moritz in 2003, the beloved ice hockey (20 francs 2008) and such exotic leisure activities as ‘Schwingen’ (Swiss wrestling) and ‘Hornussen’, which non-Swiss readers will have to look up on Wikipedia to fully understand.
Ending With a Bang
At the beginning of December 2019, it was announced that Swissmint had decided to honour a living athlete, who was still active, on its 20 franc commemorative coins. This coin depicts Swiss tennis star Roger Federer, who is regarded as a model representative of modern Switzerland, not only because of his sporting accomplishments, but also because of his contributions to society. A silver and a gold coin were issued in his honour.
Nothing like this had ever happened before – as far as the author knows, anyway. The football player Johan Cruijff, who was honoured on a Dutch commemorative 5 euro coin in 2017, had died on 24 March 2016; and motorcyclist Marco Simoncelli, who was depicted on a coin issued by the Republic of San Marino in the same year, had lost his life in 2011 in a racing accident.
Roger Federer (*1981) hopefully has many more years to pursue his social commitment and, by now, is probably mature enough not to risk any scandals that might make Switzerland regret having made him its numismatic ambassador.
But this development clearly illustrates that sport has not only become central to our society. It has taken on a much more important role: athletes – have become the new national idols. With their talent, discipline and incredibly hard work, they are able to rise from the most underprivileged social backgrounds and become rich thanks to the generous amounts of prize money they win. We used to dream of marrying royalty; now, it’s famous footballers that make us weak at the knees.
Gone are the days when authors like Agatha Christie could base a credible mystery plot around a misalliance between a wealthy heiress and a successful tennis player, because no Swiss manager, general, author or painter has made it onto a Swiss coin in their lifetime. That is an honour reserved for a Swiss athlete! Like I said, we’re ending with a bang.