London 2012: Olympic medals go into production in Wales

London 2012 Olympic Games medals
Image caption The Mint has a long history of producing medals, as well as coins

On an anonymous industrial estate on the edge of the south Wales Valley, Olympic dreams are being made.

For centuries the Royal Mint has made coins and military medals.

Now the first of the 4700 Olympic and Paralympic medals are slowly leaving the presses in Llantrisant near Cardiff.

Each medal takes 10 hours to make and will be stored in a secret strong-room deep inside the Mint before being taken to London for the games next year.

Worker Gary Rosser carefully places an 85mm (3.3 inch) diameter medal into the giant press.

Colossus, as it is known by the Mint staff is one of only two in the world, built especially for the medals project.

He says watching the medals being created is like watching history being made.

"It's great to be part of this," he says.

'I'm proud to be involved. It's something to tell the grandchildren about, that I helped to make these Olympic medals."

The process of creating a piece of sporting history is slow and painstaking.

After each five strikes they are rolled through a furnace heated to a blistering temperature of 750 degrees celcius (1,382 degrees Fahrenheit).

This softens the metal and allows the next stage of striking the design to take place.

Each medal is struck 15 times at 900 tonnes. It takes 10 hours to make each one.

Security is extremely tight at the Mint, with the site protected by Ministry of Defence police.

Image caption Colette Hume with the new gold medal

When the medals are finished, they are taken to a special strong room.

It is such a secret and secure location that only a handful of staff members know its location.

The medals will remain there until it is time to take them to London, when they are officially handed over the the London Organising Committee of the 2012 games.

Policemen and Mint security staff kept a close eye as I handled the medals.

If making an Olympic medal is a painstaking process, then choosing the design was even more so.

One hundred of the UK's leading artists, sculptors and designers were asked to submit ideas.

A shortlist of six was drawn up and the final decision on the two winning designs - one for the Olympic and the other for the Paralympic medal - was made by a selection committee including Philip Attwood, Head of Coins and Medals at the British Museum and the former British wheelchair basketball player Ade Adepitan.

Chief Engraver Gordon Summers has spent 18 years at the Mint.

He worked closely with the two winning designers, Professor David Watkins, who is responsible for the Olympic medal and Lin Cheung, a London-based jewellery designer who created the Paralympic medal.

He showed me the prototype of the medals, polished and fitted with a purple ribbon. Even these are subject to strict security.

An MoD policeman accompanied the wooden boxes as we brought them out of the special production cell at the Mint.

"On the front of the Olympic medal is Nike, the goddess of victory, with the ancient stadium that was rebuilt for the first modern Olympic games.

"On the other side is the London 2012 logo with the River Thames running through the back of it.

"The Paralympic one is different. On the outside of the medal we have braille.

"There's a depiction of the wings of Nike, so this is about transcendency and on the reverse we've got an area taken from the original sculpture of Nike which is just above her heart, so this side's about the heart of the Paralympic Games."

The family of Mint employees have been allowed to see the prototypes - but they were not allowed to take photographs with the medals or put them around their necks.

Mint officials say the International Olympic Committee say the athletes who have worked and trained for years are the ones who deserve to be the very first to put a medal around their necks.

Paul Binning is responsible for making sure all the medals are made and delivered on time.

"Yes, we're confident we can do it," he said.

"We have a very long history of making military medals, and medals for the Queen's honours lists as well as the coins."

In fact, the only military medal the Mint does not make is the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military award for valour. The medals are still cast from bronze taken from cannons captured from the Russians at Sebastopol.

The 2008 Beijing Games saw UK athletes return with a record medal haul including 19 Olympic and 42 Paralympic golds.

With 274 days until London 2012, hopes are high that these games - with their Welsh-made medals - will the most successful ever.

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