SALT LAKE CITY As Derek Parra stood beaming on the winner's pedestal at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games to claim his medals for speed skating, he was proud not just because he'd come a long, hard way from poverty and struggle to race and to win a gold medal for the 1500-meter race (and a silver medal for the 5000-meter race), but because his medals were made with precious metals from the local Bingham Canyon mine.
And he knew it.
"I was aware that the precious metal used in the 2002 Olympic medals came from here in Utah," Parra recalled. "To me it makes the gold and silver I won that much more meaningful."
Parra, who is currently the Youth Outreach Director at the Utah Olympic Oval and a games coach, said it was an honor to represent the United States on the field of play where he set a world record for his 1500-meter time of 1.43.95.
He also liked having the home court advantage.
"To win at any games is special, but to stand on the top of the podium on one's home soil is incredible, and to know that the medals that hung around my neck as the national anthem was played came from that same soil made that moment perfect," he said.
For the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Kennecott provided the precious metals for 1,600 medals: gold, silver, copper and zinc a donated value of several million dollars. For the London 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic games, the company provided 4,700 medals, each weighing about 14 oz.
So when a massive spring landslide in April buried the largest open pit mine in the world, more than jobs and income were feared lost.
So were potential Olympic medals.
But now, all is well. Rio Tinto Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation has another mine in Mongolia that can take up the slack, and it's not Kennecott's turn to donate precious metals for the upcoming games.
The landslide, measuring 2,000 feet wide and high, is the biggest since Kennecott opened the mine in 1906. Fortunately, and because Kennecott officials constantly monitor earth movement at the site, they saw the slide coming and took precautionary measures. Officials moved the Visitor's Center and shut down operations for 48 hours. No one was injured and production was halted only briefly.
"We were up and running again very quickly," said company spokesman Justin Jones. "So far we've been able to meet all of our obligations."
"We don't always provide the metal for Olympic medals; we have (only) sponsored two Olympic games. Other games have chosen other suppliers," Jones continued. "Of course, we did the medals for Salt Lake, and since our headquarters is located in London we sponsored the London games as well. We provided the blanks that were delivered and then processed at The Royal Mint."
Ninety-nine percent of the metal for the Salt Lake City 2002 and London 2012 Olympic Games medals came from the open-pit mine at Bingham Canyon. The other 1 percent came from Kennecott's sister mine, the Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia.
Oyu Tolgoi LLC is Mongolia's largest copper and gold mining company and is a strategic partnership between the government of Mongolia, Ivanhoe Mines and Rio Tinto.
Oyu Tolgoi, in southern Mongolia's Gobi desert, is the largest project ever developed in Mongolia and will be one of the largest and highest-grade copper and gold mines in the world.
Rio Tinto manages the Oyu Tolgoi project and will provide dividends to the Mongolian government as well as taxes and royalties from mine sales.
For its Olympic metals-to-medals project in Salt Lake, Kennecott refined and shipped 98 pounds of gold, 6 tons of silver and a couple of tons of copper. The International Olympic Committee requires gold medals to be gilded with at least 6 grams of pure gold.