Angela Merkel has her duties as German Chancellor. Her days are probably filled to the brim. And yet she travelled to Rio for the final match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup despite her overflowing agenda. Prior to Germany’s massive World Cup disaster, she even visited the German team in 2018 in their training camp.
Let’s be honest, it’s more than weird to see the elderly chancellor among all the young athletes in the press photos – and the German citizens didn’t really get anything out of this appointment either. However, visiting the German team was an unbeatable PR tool for a politician striving for approval – despite fraud and doping scandals, sports have a positive connotation today, to the extent that sports cannot only boost the image of politicians, but also the sales figures of coins.
How It All Started: 1972 Munich Olympics
When looking at early German commemorative coins, it becomes evident that Germany defined itself as country of poets and thinkers until the 1970s. Most coins are dedicated to writers. Some philosophers, natural scientists and the fine arts were allowed as well. Then, the Olympics and their funding gap came.
The 1972 Munich Olympics cost 1.582 billion deutsche marks. The organising committee intended to raise the money without the help of German taxpayers. Therefore, several lotteries were organised, the television broadcasting rights were sold, and donations raised. Nevertheless, even after adding the proceeds from selling the tickets, there was still a financial hole of 831 million marks. And that was a considerable amount of money in the late 60s!
Of course, they also planned to issue Olympic coins. Most of these coins were typical commemorative coins, i.e. coins that one could get at a bank at face value and that, in theory, could be used as cash everywhere. The sales revenue gained by the state from the sale of such pieces is calculated – until today – by subtracting the minting, material and logistic costs from the face value. The organisers planned to issue 30 million Olympic coins of DM 10 each with a sales revenue of DM 100 million.
In January, the first 6 million Olympic coins arrived at the bank counters. They were already sold out on the issuing day. And, obviously, nobody used them as cash! The organising committee reacted immediately: the new plan was to issue four series with a total mintage of 100 million pieces that would increase the sales revenue to 250 million deutsche marks.
Great Attention from the Media to Olympic Coins Thanks to a Diplomatic Faux-Pas
The clou was that the first 10 million Olympic coins had an inscription which had to be changed immediately. In the opening ceremony of the 1972 Olympic Games, the athletes of the GDR and the FRG marched into the stadium separately for the first time; as a result, the GDR protested against the legend: “Spiele der XX. Olympiade 1972 in Deutschland” (Games of the XX Olympiad 1972 in Germany). They argued that the FRG wasn’t Germany but only a part of it. Therefore, they claimed, the inscription had to be changed.
This was done immediately. And soon many German magazines reported that collectors were willing to pay DM 25 for the coins of the first series that had originally been bought for DM 10. Yes, one could even get 110 marks for a series that contained all four mint marks! It was no surprise that everyone started to speculate with Olympic coins at that time. In 1969 the FRG had 60.46 million inhabitants, which means that there were 1.65 Olympic coins per person. Babies and old persons included.
In those days, 4,500 journalists were accredited reporters for the Olympic Games. The 20,000 copies of the daily “Olympia Press” sold like hot cakes. And, of course, also back then journalists didn’t report exclusively on sport events. Everybody was desperately looking for new topics, and the coins were far too attractive not to write about them. It didn’t take long for the entire world to know how successful German Olympic coins were.
Therefore, Olympic coins have been a crucial element of the funding of the Olympics since 1972, and the Olympic Committee is obviously heavily involved in the matter, too. It is not for nothing that there is a special Olympic Commission for collectibles in Lausanne. Coins (and stamps) only decreased in importance because the amount of money that can be earned from the sale of broadcasting rights increased exponentially.
Football? Is There Anyone Interested in Football?
Back then, nobody had the idea that the same concept might work in the context of a World Cup. When the German football team won the World Cup in 1974, the FRG dedicated its commemorative coins to the 25th anniversary of the FRG and Immanuel Kant. The FIFA World Cup? Not at all.
The only things that bear numismatic testimony to this event are official FIFA medals and coins issued by active coin producers on behalf of nations like Benin, Haiti and Liberia on this occasion.
And Then There Was the So-Called “Summer’s Fairy Tale”…
And that was it. German coins hadn’t featured sports for three decades. While the German Bundesliga became a global player, the government refrained from using sports motifs.
That changed in 2003. Another World Cup on German soil was planned for 2006, the event turned into the crowning glory of the career of an intelligent protagonist of German football. We are talking about Franz Beckenbauer, the captain of the victorious German team of 1974. In 1972, he had the right age to witness Olympic coins. We don’t know whether it was actually Franz Beckenbauer who came up with the idea of Olympic coins, but we certainly think that he would have been capable of it.
After all, the organising committee of the World Cup in Germany planned to do more than holding a major sports event. They wanted the World Cup to be accompanied by a large-scale art and culture programme at a cost of 30 million euros. However, they lacked the funding.
Let’s recall the situation of 2003: back then, there was a heated debate throughout Germany on how to save even more money at the cost of the poorest of the poor, the long-time unemployed, of whom there were unfortunately far too many after the German reunification. The law on the Hartz IV reform was published on 24 December 2003. During these years, a chancellor of the Social Democratic Party of Germany laid the foundation for the fact that Germany is a low-wage country today where it’s possible that people cannot make a living despite working full-time. In such a tense situation, there was no way of making people understand why politicians wanted to discuss how to use tax money in order to fund a 30 million art and culture programme.
Thus, the organising committee proposed to approve and produce World Cup commemorative coins by means of an accelerated procedure. The unit responsible for coins could be persuaded, however, in Germany the finance minister ultimately decides whether (commemorative) coins are issued or not. Therefore, the matter became a political one. To obtain political approval, the committee responsible for the art and culture programme included one representative from each of the four political groups of the German Bundestag to ensure that the use of tax money occurred under political control. As a result, the cultural politicians were in a huff because not they, but their colleagues from the sports committee were allowed to be part of the World Cup coin committee (and probably to watch football matches).
The four issues with 16,550,000 pieces raised enough money to give the permission to spend 30 million euros on the art and culture programme. A sum of 24 million euros was used to fund almost 50 projects, the rest was returned.
By the way, the proceeds of 20 million euros that were generated from the sale of 100 euro gold coins were not added to this pool. This sum had the very purpose of co-funding the gala at the beginning of the event.
A Glance at the Motifs
Let’s take the opportunity to have a close look at the motifs that can be seen on these coins. Or rather at those that cannot be seen. What is completely missing are depictions of athletes. For the World Cup, motifs were chosen that look as if football were taking place solely with the help of a ball – no need for a foot kicking it.
Thus, the issuer exactly followed the aesthetics of 1972 Olympic coins: regarding those pieces, only one coin type had featured two stylized asexual sportsmen or women, and it wasn’t possible to tell which sport they represented.
The First Recognisable Sportsman Is a Sportswoman
This means that the first athlete on a German coin that can be clearly associated with a particular sport is a female athlete. A javelin thrower, to be precise. She was featured on the commemorative coin issued in 2009 on the occasion of the 12th World Athletics Championships in Berlin.
Why was there such a drastic change in motif? Well, it’s quite simple: this time, the German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück had asked the people what they would like to see on a sports coin. The answer of 4,000 collectors was – as the Magazine “prägefrisch” reported – that one would like to see a concrete motif, preferably a sportsman or woman throwing a javelin or the Berlin Olympic Stadium as the venue. That was immediately put into practice: the jury voted in favour of the design of Bodo Broschat, which perfectly met these requirements.
If You Want to Sell, You Must Learn
And because the Ministry of Finance had learned by then that commemorative coins can be used to raise money, they were happy to follow the collectors’ instructions: thus, the commemorative coin for the 41th Alpine World Ski Championships of 2011 features a slalom skier, the commemorative coin for the FIFA Women’s World Cup of the same year depicts a football player and the commemorative coin celebrating the 50th anniversary of the sports foundation “Deutsche Sporthilfe” shows a group of runners.
A Kowtow to Fashionable Sports
The fact that the sports motifs were targeted at a young audience is perfectly illustrated by the new 10 euro series of the FRG. Under the title “Luft bewegt” (Moving Air), fashionable trend sports are currently being paid homage to: paragliding and land sailing.
What You Have Been Looking for in Vain on German Coins
What has never been depicted before on German coins are real athletes – regardless of whether they are alive or not. And there is a good reason for it, at least regarding living sportsmen and women: after all, an idol can quickly turn into the subject of gossip.
Just remember the tennis star who is more famous for his affairs than for his hard-hitting serve today. Or the football king who was convicted of tax evasion. And we shouldn’t forget to mention the football star who was considered a paragon of integration and then showed an affinity for the Turkish government that was incomprehensible to German citizens.
In other words: at the time when a sports star is an idol, he or she is still young enough to have a long life ahead of them. And such a long life offers enough opportunities to do embarrassing things. And do we really want a sports star who is a drug addict or tax evader, doping or f***ing around (non-printable word, you know what is meant) on a German state coin? You can’t undo such a coin!
Looking Over the Fence
Beyond the wall, sports played a decisive role in manifesting the superiority of the socialist system in international competition. Despite the lack of funds, the GDR always had enough money to support the promotion of sports. Just remember the country’s incredible success at the Olympics! In 1972, for example, when the GDR competed for the first time separately from the FRG, the country of 17 million inhabitants won 66 medals (20 of them gold medals) and thus ended up in third place in the medals table after the Soviet Union and the United States, and ranked higher than the host country, the FRG, that won 40 medals (13 of them gold medals).
On the coins of the GDR, though, sports didn’t take place, there’s just one exception: in 1988, shortly before the fall of the GDR, a single coin was struck depicting a sports motif: it was dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the GDR’s sports federation and features three female runners.
What About Austria?
Austria defined itself as an Alpine republic. Here, sports usually take place on two strips. And indeed, regarding Austrian coinage, skiing is the dominant sport on coins.
In 1964, the Vienna Hauptmünzamt produced an Olympic coin on the occasion of the IX Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck. A single one. 2,900,000 pieces of 50 schillings each (= 3.60 euros) were minted of the ski jumper, who just jumped off the Bergisel ski jump in front of the Tyrolean mountain landscape.
However, the celebration of the XII Winter Olympics in Innsbruck in 1976 took place on a different level. After all, one had learned from the experience of Olympic coins in Germany that these pieces could raise at least some of the money necessary for the Olympic Games. The government ordered 20.5 million coins of 100 schillings each (= DM 14.2 = EUR 7.1). They had four coin types minted, three of them were not only struck at the Vienna Principal Mint but also at Hall Mint, which was reactivated especially for this purpose. This meant that the number of types a collector had to buy in order to have all types in his collection was increased from four to seven at no great cost.
In order to understand how high this number is, we have to put the mintage into perspective by recalling the number of citizens. Whereas 1.65 Olympic coins were struck for each citizen at the Munich Olympics, regarding the Innsbruck Winter Games of 1976 this figure increased to 2.7.
The motifs? Well, anything but people. The depiction of a downhill skier on one of the coin types is so abstract that he can hardly be recognised as such.
Under the Lead of the Central Bank of Austria
On 1 January 1989 not only the Austrian mint but also the privilege minting coins was handed over to the Central Bank of Austria. And the latter turned its mint into a profit centre that wanted to be less committed to the slogans of politicians and more to the needs of collectors. It only took six years until the mint launched its own Olympic coin project. Not because of an event taking place in its own country, of course. In 1995, the Austrian Mint tried to follow the tradition of the popular field of collection by issuing a collector’s series on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games.
The crucial difference from all previous Olympic coins was the fact that no Olympic Games were held in the country at the same time and that the product was exclusively for collectors and sold as proof versions for way more than face value. The result: even though the mintage of 100,000 pieces was rather low, the pieces weren’t sold. Almost a third of all coins had to be melted down. For comparison: one collector’s edition in proof quality had been produced for each coin type of the 1976 Olympic coins, in this case, the mintage numbers of the sought-after pieces were between 179,000 and 373,600.
Nevertheless, this series is important because it was the first time that a sportsman known by name was depicted on a coin from the German-speaking area. Thomas Stangassinger, an idol of the 90s! He made it to the podium 37 times. In 1999 he won the World Cup in slalom, in 1994 the Olympic in the same discipline. But pay attention to the way in which he is depicted on the coin. If you don’t know who it is, it could be any skier. The other coin of the same series features a nameless gymnast with ribbon. Thus, the connection between the coin and the concrete person isn’t very strong: If Mr Stangassinger, who is about 55 years old by now, should be involved in a media scandal, only very few people would remember that the Central Bank of Austria once considered him worthy to represent Austria.
Since then, numismatically speaking, sports only take place on 5 euro pieces in Austria, which can be bought from banks at face value: in 2004 a coin was issued on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Austrian Football Association, in 2005 one was dedicated the 100th anniversary of the Austrian Ski Association, in 2008 two coins honoured the XIII European Football Championship in Austria and Switzerland, in 2010 two coins were dedicated to the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, and 2012 to the 42th Alpine World Ski Championships 2013 in Schladming.
Did you notice? In 2010, an attempt was made to take advantage of the general Olympic coin collecting hysteria in order to launch a product that addresses the Olympic Games taking place at the same time. However, the coin that was produced on this occasion is considered a turning point in the collecting field of the Olympics. The greed (of the state) had grown too much. The Royal Canadian Mint produced so many different products that no collector was able to afford all of them. Therefore, many of them stopped collecting Olympic coins completely.
Since then, the Austrian Mint hasn’t minted a coin on the occasion of the Olympics taking place in another country.
Sports in Switzerland
A glance at the coins of Switzerland completes the picture. The first “sports coin” was not minted until 2003, before that, all javelins and crossbows that had been depicted on coins were not sports equipment, but war material.
The motifs of the few pieces produced since then are based on the favourite sports of the Swiss people, on downhill skiing, as depicted on both commemorative coins of the 37th Alpine World Ski Championships in St. Moritz of 2003, on the beloved ice hockey (20 francs 2008) and on exotic free time pleasures such as Swiss wrestling and “Hornussen”, in case of which non-Swiss have to check Wikipedia to find out what these sports are about.
Quite a Scoop at the End
At the beginning of December 2019, it was announced that Swissmint decided to honour a living and still active athlete on its 20 francs commemorative coin. The decision that Swiss tennis star Roger Federer became the model ambassador of modern Switzerland was made not merely because of his athletic success but also because of his social commitment. A silver and a gold coin were dedicated to him.
To the knowledge of the author, something similar had never been done before. Football player Johan Cruijff, who was honoured on a Dutch 5 euro commemorative coin in 2017, died on 24 March 2016; and motorcyclist Marco Simoncelli, who was depicted on a coin of the same year by the Republic of San Marino, had lost his life in a race accident in 2011.
Roger Federer (*1981) will hopefully have many more years to pursue his social commitment and he is probably mature enough not to risk a scandal that would make Switzerland regret having made him its numismatic ambassador.
However, the development illustrates clearly that sports haven’t only arrived in the middle of society. Sports have assumed a much more important role: sportsmen – and women of course – became the new national idols. Because of their talent, their discipline and an incredible amount of work, they rise from the lower strata of society to the top and become rich thanks to generous prize moneys. Those who used to dream of marrying a prince are overwhelmed now when meeting a famous football player.
The times when authors as Agatha Christie could build a believable crime plot on a misalliance between a rich heiress and a successful tennis player are gone because no Swiss manager, no general, no author, no painter has ever made it on a Swiss coin during his lifetime. This honour was reserved for a Swiss athlete! As I said, quite a scoop at the end.