The collector of the world’s most thorough cache of Olympic torches, medals and other valuable keepsakes insists he does not play favorites. They are all his babies.
Still, when pressed, Gordy Crawford brings up a gold medal from the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Not long ago, a family from Norway put it up for auction. The price tag soared into six figures. There was only one other bidder.
“It was the IOC,” he said. “Fortunately for me, they had a budget and I didn’t. So, I have a 1932 gold medal.”
That gold medal, along with millions of dollars’ worth of Olympic treasures Crawford has collected over the years, now resides in the archives at the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters in Colorado Springs. Crawford, 71, felt it was time to turn his passel over to the USOC. He spent $1.5 million to build an archive room (an entire floor, actually) that includes a 225-square-foot fireproof Special Collections area where the torches and medals will live behind glass.
Parts of the collection will eventually go on display at the U.S. Olympic Museum, now under construction in Colorado Springs and expected to open in 2020.
“I want all that history to be celebrated in a public place, hopefully to inspire future athletes to compete, and to inspire sponsors and donors to contribute to the team,” said Crawford, who, in addition to his role of collector, historian and passionate fan, serves as chairman of the USOC’s charitable arm, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation.
Poring through Crawford’s collection is like taking a trivia tour through Olympic history. Did you know:
—There are only two medals for each event at the first modern games — Athens, 1896 — a silver awarded to the winner and bronze for second place.
—The 1904 Olympics were folded into the World’s Fair in St. Louis, and there was so much action going on around the games, says USOC archivist Teri Hedgpeth, as she gingerly unwraps medals from those games, “that hardly anyone knew they were going on.”
—That led Athens to hold a 1906 Olympics, the “officialness” of which is widely debated. Were they real Olympics? Depends on who you ask. But Crawford has a medals set from them nonetheless.
—One of Crawford’s most valuable torches is from the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki — only 21 exist, and only three of those were in private hands. Crawford waited 25 years for his chance and he paid more than $1 million for it. Another is from 1956, the year Melbourne held the Summer Games, but because of quarantine rules, did not allow horses to enter the country for the equestrian events. That competition was moved to Stockholm, and a limited number of torches were produced that read “Stockholm 1956.” All were marched into the competition area on horseback.
Crawford’s collection essentially completes an archive that is literally overflowing with Olympic memories grand and not-so-grand.
In one corner, still covered in plastic wrap, is a full-sized statue of Sam the Olympic Eagle, the official mascot of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Displayed on a bookshelf nearby is one of Michael Johnson’s famous golden spikes from the 1996 Olympics. Last month, the archive received a mint-condition Opening Ceremony uniform from the Mexico City Games from swimmer Kathy Thomas Young. After bobsledder Steven Holcomb died last year, his family donated his uniforms, medals his crystal globes from World Cup action — six of which reside in the fireproof vault along with Crawford’s torches and medals.
“Shock and awe,” Hedgpeth said of her reaction to Crawford’s donation. “Awe that he allows us to do it, and it’s a phenomenal collection. It’s a dream come true.”
Crawford’s day job was at a global investment company, where he worked for a long while as a media/entertainment analyst. He received an invitation to the Sarajevo Winter Games in 1984 as a guest of ABC. Soon after landing, he was surrounded by pin traders, including Viktor Cornell, one of the world’s most renowned pin collectors.
“He’s the guy who sold me my first Olympic medal,” Crawford said. “It was a bronze from Berlin in 1936. That started me collecting the serious stuff.”
There are a few missing pieces: A gold medal from 1904. Medals from Sochi and Vancouver.
In some ways, the newer medals are harder to come by.
Back in the days of the Eastern Bloc, an athlete from East Germany or Hungary could sell a medal and buy a house, or feed his family for a year. These days, Olympic athletes across the globe are, in general, more financially secure, giving them less incentive to sell the recently won prizes. Meanwhile, children and grandparents of Olympic winners from decades gone by come across old medals sitting in drawers and basements; they may feel no real connection to the medals but want them in the hands of someone who will take care of them.
Crawford fits the bill.
Soon, an insurance appraiser will come to Colorado to put a value on goods that are estimated to be worth more than $15 million in total. But Crawford and Hedgpeth each acknowledge that there isn’t really a number to put on a collection this thorough.
“It’s a combination of loving the Olympics,” Crawford says in explaining his passion for collecting, “and I’m a real patriot. My eyes still well up when they play the anthem. And I love seeing great athletes represent our country.”
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