When 17-year-old Red Gerard brought home the gold medal at the Winter Olympics, history was made. Not only was it the first medal Team USA had earned in Pyeongchang, it also made Gerard the youngest Olympian to win gold at the Winter Games. So you may have been confused when after the event, Gerard — along with silver and bronze medalists, Max Parrot and Mark McMorris of Team Canada — were handed stuffed animals instead of Olympic medals.
Don't worry. They haven't done away with the traditional Olympic medals. It's the custom at the Winter Olympics to give the day's medals out at a nightly ceremony in the Olympic Village. This is a different tradition from the Summer Olympics, where medals are usually given out immediately after each event. The difference is simply a matter of numbers. In Pyeongchang, there are 2,952 athletes competing in 102 events across 15 different sports. At the last Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016, there were 11,000 athletes in 28 sports competing in 306 events. A nightly ceremony would be unruly.
In the past, Winter Olympians have been handed flowers while they pose for pictures immediately after their events. But the flowers were deemed less environmentally-friendly than a reusable stuffed animal. It's a small gesture at an event in which entire buildings will be considered disposable after the Games have finished. It doesn't hurt that the stuffed tigers also make for an adorable keepsake that fans can purchase on site or online (for around $600) to show off their Olympic pride.
And you'll be happy to know these aren't just any old stuffed animals being handed out in Pyeongchang. Medalists receive stuffed tigers of the Olympic mascot, Soohorang. The white tiger is considered Korea's guardian animal and the Olympic tiger's name is a blend of "Sooho" which means protection in Korean, and "rang" which means tiger.
The Soohorang tigers wear either a gold, silver or bronze hat (to match their medalist) and a paper flower known as an uhsahwa. According to the official Pyeongchang website, the uhsahwa is "a paper flower that was bestowed to those who passed national exams during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910)."
Each evening, the day's medalists receive the traditional gold, silver, and bronze medals that they earned in their events. They also receive a wooden box with mountain scenes of Pyeongchang and characters from the Korean Hangul alphabet that spell out “Pyeongchang 2018". (Neither of those items are available online.)