POLITICS

Medals for Pan American Games incorporate Braille for the first time

03/03/2015 11:19 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - They're crafted from metal mined in three different countries across the Americas, and embossed with Braille.

The gold, silver and bronze medals for this summer's Pan American Games, unveiled at a ceremony Tuesday at the Royal Ontario Museum, represent unity and diversity, organizers say.

They're the diameter of a softball and as heavy as a can of soup, and the back of the medals reads "Toronto 2015" in English, French, Spanish and Braille —marking the first time the tactile writing system used by the blind has been incorporated in medals for both abled-bodied and Paralympic athletes at a major Games.

"It says something about what we think of people with disabilities in Canada," said Elisabeth Walker-Young, a four-time Paralympian and Canada's chef de mission for the Parapan Am Games. "And all through sport. . .who knew right? That we could do something so almost political. . .

"It's really going to set a precedent I think for anybody who's looking to host again, whether it's an Olympic Games or a Commonwealth Games, or another Pan Am Games."

The medals were designed in collaboration with Metis artist Christi Belcourt, produced by the Royal Canadian Mint and the metal supplied by Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation from three of its operations across the Americas — the gold from its Hemlo mine in Ontario, the silver from its Pueblo Viejo mine in the Dominican Republic and the copper from the Zalvidar mine in Chile.

"Beautiful, truly beautiful," said Mark Tewksbury, an Olympic gold medallist in swimming. "And very symbolic, I think Canada did such an interesting job of making our medals so representative of us as a country. The inclusion of Braille is hugely significant. It speaks to that real inclusion, 'united we play,' that whole idea behind Toronto 2015."

The Mint used an ancient technique called 'mokume gane' which fuses different alloys making each of the some-4,200 medals unique. The medals have three layered ovals to represent the three Pan American regions.

"When I first saw them, I got goosebumps, it was one of those moments where it made this moment a little more real, it gave it some tangibility I guess," said Curt Harnett, an Olympic cycling medallist and Canada's chef de mission for the Pan Am Games. "The thought that went into bringing metals from across the Americas into these medals. . .and incorporating Braille, is really going to provide a special emblem for the athletes that are fortunate enough to make the podium.

"For myself, a little jealous that I'm not going to be able to earn one, on the podium at a home Games."

Tewksbury expressed similar sentiments.

"It's really weird, as an athlete I still got a little nervous looking at the medals, and I just go 'Wait a minute, you're not going to win one of these, chill dude,'" Tewksbury said. "(A medal) is the representation of years of work. The medals I have, I look at them now and it's been decades since I've won a medal, but it reminds me of what it took to get them."

The medals for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games are identical except for the ribbon colour: blue and green for the Pan Am medals, orange and red for the Parapan Am medals. Walker-Young said that, plus the incorporation of Braille, and the fact the Pan Ams and Parapan Ams share the same mascot — Pachi the porcupine — speaks of the inclusiveness of the Toronto 2015.

"It's history making," she said. "And if athletes in the Pan Am Games are able to go to a school and there happens to be a child with a disability or visual impairment there and they get to feel it and actually read where these Games happened, who knows how much that can inspire them. So it's just kind of a whole story, it's more than just the Games, it's a bigger, broader, worldly, and I'm thrilled to tell more people about that."

The Pan Am Games run in southern Ontario from July 10 to 26 while the Parapan Ams are Aug. 7-15.