US Coins

Olympic coin sparks some controversy: Beth Deisher

Robert Graham’s “Olympic Gateway” sculpture featuring headless nude male and females figures sparked criticism when selected as the dominant design element of the 1984 Olympic silver dollar. Graham also designed the Eagle reverse.

Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

The United States experienced a deep recession between 1980 and 1982.

Rather than build new athletic venues, the United States Olympic Committee and the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee opted to rely mostly on existing venues and to seek corporate funding and surcharges from sales of commemorative coins to finance hosting the Games of the XXIII Olympiad.

The opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics were to be held in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which had been built for the 1932 Games.

The LAOOC decided it wanted something special for the opening ceremony and commissioned California sculptor Robert Graham in 1981 to create a public sculpture to stand in front of the stadium entrance.

The numismatic community was focused on the commemorative coins. After an exhaustive legislative battle over the number of coins to be issued and private versus government control, a three-coin program prevailed, with the U.S. Mint in charge.

Chief Sculptor-Engraver Elizabeth Jones’ Olympic Discus Thrower design for the 1983 silver dollar underwent some minor tinkering after the initial design was made public. But collectors greeted it with enthusiasm.

However, the collecting public was shocked to find headless nude male and female athletic torsos as the principal design element for the obverse of the 1984 Olympic silver dollar. Collectors fiercely questioned the headless aspect. But the designer, Robert Graham, countered that it was his way of honoring athletes in general rather than feature specific athletes.

Despite criticism, the coin design was used. The design and the choice of designer was fait accompli, apparently in closed-door discussions between the LAOOC and Treasury officials.

The noncollecting public seemed oblivious to the coin design controversy until June 1, 1984, when Graham’s Olympic Gateway sculpture was unveiled.

The 25-foot sculpture features the bronze headless nude male and female athletic torsos separated by an Olympic flame on a beam supported by two columns.

The sculpture’s unveiling brought quick criticism: Some proffered that the headless figures were suggestive of violence but most comments centered on other anatomical detail as being too realistic. 

Treasury officials’ decision to invite a non-Mint engraver to design a U.S. commemorative coin would prove pivotal in later years.

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