Coins devoted to Olympic themes have played a critical role in
shaping the modern commemorative program of the U.S. Mint, starting
with the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
The Los Angeles Games program was the second modern commemorative
coinage program and consisted of two years of silver dollars of
different designs and a 1984 gold $10 coin, all struck at multiple
Mints. The $10 eagle was the first U.S. gold coin minted in more than
50 years and the first coin to bear the W Mint mark for West Point —
factors contributing to its immediate popularity.
Sales of the 13 different 1984 Olympics coins, counting all Mints
and Proof and Uncirculated versions, totaled more than 5 million
coins, which raised $73 million for the United States Olympic
Committee. The U.S. Mint enlisted banks to sell these coins to their
customers and, according to the Treasury Department, almost 45 percent
were sold to noncollectors. High mintages make these coins readily
available today, the only exception being the doubled die obverse
variety of the 1984-W $10 coin.
For the 1988 Seoul Games, the program consisted of a single silver
dollar and one gold $5 coin featuring Nike, the winged goddess of
Victory. The gold coin is often cited as one of the most artful U.S.
modern coin designs. 1.9 million 1988 Olympics coins were sold
yielding $23 million for the USOC. These coins lacked the hype and
marketing of the 1984 Olympic series and only 24 percent were sold to noncollectors.
The 1992 Olympics inspired a commemorative series including a
copper-nickel clad half dollar, silver dollar and gold $5 coin. An
open design contest was held, ultimately leading to embarrassment for
the Mint. After the baseball-themed dollar coin designed by John R.
Deecken was issued, it became clear that the illustration had been
copied in detail from the Fleer 1991 Nolan Ryan baseball card.
The two-year 1996 Atlanta Centennial Games spurred a program of
unprecedented scope with the goal of raising $250 million for the
USOC. Four copper-nickel clad half dollars, eight silver dollars and
four gold $5 pieces were authorized — 32 coins in Proof and
The bloated program met with little enthusiasm and the coins were
among the worst selling modern U.S. commemoratives ever. In the end,
only $25 million was raised for the USOC.
The glut of 1995 and 1996 Olympic coins turned collectors away
from commemoratives, leading to record low sales of other 1996 and
subsequent 1997 issues. Today these 1995 through 1997 issues are among
the most valuable of modern commemoratives because of their paltry
mintage figures, but the surcharge beneficiaries suffered from the
poor sales. Clearly, something needed to change. Lawmakers responded
quickly in 1996, capping the number of commemoratives that could be
issued in a single year, a restriction that remains in place today.
Scott schechter is a grader at NGC and co-author of 100
Greatest U.S. Modern Coins. He can be reached by email directed
to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.