A roaring crowd, adoring fans, spotlights, and a dazzling trophy lifted above the champion’s head are the epitome of victory, the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. The history of trophies dates back thousands of years, and trophies have become a symbol of victory, presented to this day to sports teams and individuals to recognize their achievements across sports competitions and tournaments.
Below is a history of trophies, zooming in on some of the most enigmatic and representative sports trophies of all time.
What is a Trophy?
A trophy is a tangible reminder of a specific achievement, often made of pewter, bronze, sterling silver, or gold, which serves as evidence and recognition of merit and victory. Trophies both show to others that the person holding it is the champion and set an example of what a winner looks like.
Whether they award achievements for sporting events, from school competitions to prestigious professional level sports tournaments, are awarded at world’s most prestigious music or acting awards ceremonies, are used by companies and organizations to reward and celebrate their best employees and partners, take the form of medals to recognize war heroes, or are used among friends to celebrate a fantasy league’s winners, trophies are symbols of victory dating back to Ancient Greece.
Indeed, the word trophy, derived from Greek tropaion, referred to a memorial of war victories. Following a successful battle, Greek troops would set up the trophy, often consisting of captured standard or arms, on the field of battle marking the spot where the enemy had been defeated. The trophy often carried an inscription with a dedication to gods. In naval victories, the trophy consisting of entire ships or their beaks, was set up on the nearest beach.
The Romans continued the tradition, but transitioned to building stone trophies, such as columns or arches, in Rome. Outside Rome, there are remains of such trophies built by Augustus near Nice, France and by Trajan at Adamclisi in Eastern Romania.
A Short History Trophies in Sports
The Olive Wreath
In Ancient Greece, during the original Olympic Games, held every four years at the temple of Zeus in Olympia, winners were not awarded trophies but olive wreaths. Indeed, the prize was an olive branch off a sacred olive tree near the temple of Zeus, twisted into a circle to form a wreath.
At the original games, there were no prizes for the runner-ups, therefore only the winner was crowned with the olive wreath. In the modern Olympics, gold, silver and bronze medals replaced the olive wreaths to recognize the first, second, and third place, respectively.
Interestingly enough, when the inaugural modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece, the winners received a silver medal and an olive branch, because silver was considered to be more precious at that time. The custom of gold, silver and bronze for the top three places was later introduced in the 1904 Summer Olympics held in the United States.
The Panathenaic Amphorae (566BC)
Later, winners of the Panathenaic games held from 566 BC to the 3rd century AD in Athens received large terracotta vases (amphorae) that contained sacred olive oil as victory prizes. Some amphorae were ten imperial gallons (12 US gallons) and 24-28 inch high. Therefore, unlike the Olympic Games which were a stephanitic or ‘crowned’ event because they awarded the champion with only a crown, Panathenaic games were chrematitic or 'monetary' games where the winner received prizes with a monetary value in the form of significant quantities of sacred olive oil.
The amphorae had a distinctive shape featuring narrow neck and base, tight handles, and were decorated with consistent symbols depicting goddess Athena on one side, and the representation of the event for which it was an award on the other side. These prize amphorae could thus be considered the oldest sports trophies, as they were used to commemorate the athleticism of these games.
World’s Oldest Sporting Trophy: The Carlisle Bells (1599)
The oldest sporting trophies in the world, the Carlisle Bells, date back to the days of Queen Elizabeth I. Indeed, they were first awarded in 1599 to the winners of the Carlisle Bell, a historic British horse race held at Carlisle in Cumbria, UK. The bells were donated by Lady Dacre in 1599.
The larger bell bears the inscription The sweftes horse thes bell to tak for mi lade Daker sake (The swiftest horse this bell to take for my lady Dacre’s sake). The smaller bell is inscribed with the words 1599 H.B.M.C which is believed to stand for "Henry Baines, Mayor of Carlisle”.
The bells were thought to have been lost in the 1800s, but were rediscovered in a box in the town Clerck’s office in the late 19th century. Since then, they have been awarded to the winner of the Carlisle Bell premier race. They are kept at Tullie House Museum, the house in Carlisle where Lady Dacre lived before her marriage.
Chalices and The Kyp Cup (1699)
In the late 1600s in the New World, winners of sporting events were awarded chalices, footed cups used for drinking during ceremonies, which were traditionally made of silver. They became associated with sporting events, and were typically awarded to winners of horse races, and later boating and automobile races.
One of the most famous examples is the Kyp Cup (carrying the name of the silversmith that crafted it - Jesse Kyp), a small, two-handled, silver chalice, which was famously given to the winner of a horse racing event in New England in 1699. Silver chalices were what a sports trophy originally looked like, and are the precursors of the traditional image of trophies today, but over the years silver plates and bowls also grew in popularity as sporting events trophies.
America’s Cup (1851)
America’s Cup is one of the oldest and most famous trophies in international sailing, awarded in America’s Cup race, the oldest international competition that is still operating in any sport. The cup is an ornate bottomless ewer, made of sterling silver. It was originally called the "R.Y.S. £100 Cup", the initials standing for Royal Yacht Squadron awarding the trophy, and the £100 in the name standing for the value of the cup estimated at a hundred GB Pounds.
The trophy was first awarded in 1851, by the Royal Yacht Squadron of Great Britain, for a sailing yacht race around the Isle of Wight, in the United Kingdom. The first winning yacht, a schooner from New York City, was called America, and as a result the trophy became known as America’s Cup.
Since the 1920s, the America’s Cup races have been held between two sailing yachts: one from the yacht club that currently holds the vessel (the defender) and the other one from the yacht club challenging the vessel (the challenger). The trophy had been successfully defended by the New York Yacht Club 24 times in a row without a loss between 1870 and 1983, and the New York Yacht Club remains the yacht club that holds the most titles (25 titles).
Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Trophy (1887)
The Wimbledon Championships, or Wimbledon for short, is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, which first took place in 1877 at the All England Club, in Wimbledon, London, United Kingdom. One of the four Grand Slam tennis competitions, alongside the US Open, the Australian Open, and the French Open, Wimbledon is considered by many the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.
Among the four Grand Slams, it is the only one still played on grass courts, the traditional surface for tennis competitions. The first Wimbledon trophy was the Field Cup which was awarded between 1877 and 1883, followed by the Challenge Cup awarded from 1884 to 1886.
After both had been won by William Renshaw, who won the Gentlemen’s Single title three times in a row, the All England Club purchased a new trophy for 100 guineas and made the decision that the new trophy would never become the property of the winner. The Gentlemen’s Singles Trophy was first awarded in 1887: a silver gilt cup 18.5 inches in height, bearing the inscription "All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Championship of the World”. The actual trophy remains the property of the All England Club, so each new champion receives a three-quarter size replica 13.5 inches in height.
Around the replica are engraved the names and dates of all past champions. The Ladies’ Singles Trophy is a salver, made of sterling silver and decorated with mythological symbols, and sometimes referred to as the Venus Rosewater Dish or the Rosewater Dish. Similarly to the Gentlemen’s Singles, the Ladies’ Singles champion receives a miniature replica of the trophy bearing the dates and names of all past champions. The winners of the Gentlemen’s Doubles, the Ladies’ Doubles, and the Mixed Doubles are presented with silver cups. Each of the two players in the Doubles competitions receive a trophy, unlike the other Grand Slam tennis tournaments, where the winners of the Doubles competitions share a single trophy.
Stanley Cup (1893)
The Stanley Cup is North America’s oldest sports trophy that can be competed for by professional athletes. It was named after Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, the Governor General of Canada, who commissioned the cup as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup and donated it in 1892 to be presented to Canada’s champion amateur ice hockey club.
The cup was first awarded in 1893 to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. In the coming years, the cup became a symbol of top ranking professional hockey, and in 1926, it became the sole property of the National Hockey League. There are actually three versions of the Stanley Cup: the original Stanley Cup awarded in 1893, the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, which today is exclusively on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the “Presentation Cup”, and the “Permanent Cup” which is displayed at the Hockey Hall of Fame whenever the “Presentation” Cup is not available.
The original bowl was made of sterling silver and was 7.28 inches in height. The current Stanley Cup, 35.25 inches in height, and 34.5 lb in weight, is topped with a copy of the original bowl, made of an alloy of sterling silver and nickel. The delta in height is explained by tiered rings which have been added almost every year to the bottom of the bowl between 1924 and 1940 bearing engravings of winning players, coaches, management and club staff - a particularity of this trophy.
In 1958, the modern Stanley Cup was designed with five bands containing 13 winning teams each. Every 13 years, when all five bands are filled up, the top band is removed to be displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and a new band is added to the bottom.
Davis Cup (1900)
Davis Cup trophy, in its official name the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy, is presented to the winner of Davis Cup, the world’s largest international team competition in men’s tennis, also referred to by its organizers as the “World Cup of Tennis”. The trophy was first awarded in 1900, when the first Davis Cup took place between teams from the US and Great Britain.
The cup and the tournament itself soon became known as Davis Cup after Dwight Davis, who bought the sterling silver punch bowl trophy with his own money and donated it in 1900. Davis was one of the four members of the Harvard University tennis team who conceived the idea of an international tournament between the US and Great Britain a year earlier, and Davis himself played in the US teams in 1900 and 1902, when the US also won.
Today the trophy is 43.3 inches in height and weighs 231 lbs. The bowl at the top is engraved with the names of the champions between 1900 and 1919. A silver tray was added to the base of the bowl in 1921, on which the names of the champions from 1920 to 1932 have been engraved. From then on, three plinths have been added at the base of the trophy, bearing the engravings of the champions from 1933 onward.
The Kentucky Derby Trophy (1925)
The iconic Kentucky Derby gold cup is the only solid gold sports trophy that is annually awarded in the United States. The cup made of 14-karat gold is presented to the winners of the Kentucky Derby horse race, one of the most famous contests on the international horse racing scene held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, United States since the inaugural race in 1875.
The race is also known as "The Run for the Roses" because of the garland made of 554 red roses draped over the winner of the Kentucky Derby each year. This tradition was the inspiration for the song "Run for the Roses", composed by Dan Fogelberg and released in time for the 1980 race. The race is also known as the "The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports" or "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports", referring to the approximate duration of the race.
There is no historical record if a trophy was presented in 1875 to the winner of the first Kentucky Derby, and trophy presentations were only sporadically made in the following years. The gold trophy was commissioned for the 50th "Golden Anniversary" running of the horse race in 1925, and the Kentucky Derby gold trophy was presented annually ever since. The trophy is a 22 inch tall (not including the jade base) golden urn weighing 56 ounces. The urn is topped by an 18-karat gold horse and rider, and features horseshoe shaped handles.
Jules Rimet Trophy (1930-1970) and FIFA World Cup Trophy (1974)
The World Cup trophy is the most sought after prize in football in the world, presented to the winners of the FIFA World Cup football tournament every running four years. Since the first edition of the World Cup in 1930, there have been two iterations of the World Cup trophy. The journey of the FIFA World Cup trophy started with the Jules Rimet Trophy.
This first iteration of the trophy, originally named "Victory", and renamed in 1946 in honor of the FIFA President Jules Rimet, and commonly referred to as the World Cup or the Coupe du Monde (French translation of World Cup) was in place from 1930 and 1970. Made of gold-pleated sterling silver, and standing 14 inches in height and 8.4lbs in weight, the Jules Rimet Trophy's design features a winged figure of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, holding a decagonal cup over her head. The statuette is sitting on a blue base made of a semi-precious stone named lapis lazuli.
When the Brazilian football team won the FIFA World Cup tournament for the third time in 1879, the Jules Rimet Trophy was permanently awarded to Brazil, and a new trophy was commissioned for the 1974 World Cup. The new version, called the FIFA World Cup, sees the figures of two athletes holding up the golden replica of the Earth. Made of 18-karat gold, the new trophy stands 14.4 inches tall and weighs 13.61lbs, and is believed to be hollow inside otherwise its weight would be estimated at 150-180lbs.
The new trophy will not be awarded to the winning team permanently, regardless of how many competitions they win. Instead, the winning teams receive a gold-plated replica of the trophy made of bronze.
The Vince Lombardi Trophy (1967)
The Vince Lombardi Trophy is the sterling silver trophy that is awarded every year to the winner of the Super Bowl, the National Football League's final playoff game. The trophy was first awarded in 1967 when the Green Bay Packers, coached by Vince Lombardi, won the first Super Bowl competition.
The Green Bay Packers went on to win again the next year, in the second Super Bowl. The trophy was officially renamed to honor legendary coach Vince Lombardi, who won the first two Super Bowl competitions, following his death in September 1970.
The design of the Vince Lombardi Trophy is said to have been drawn on a cocktail napkin by the vice president of Tiffany & Co. Oscar Riedner. It features a football, which is true to size with a regulation-sized game ball, in a kicking position on a three sided base, and is entirely made of sterling silver.
The base features the words "Vince Lombardi Trophy'' and the Roman numerals of that edition's Super Bowl. The names of the two teams that played in the Super Bowl, the location, date and final score of the game are also engraved after the trophy is awarded.
Unlike other trophies which have to be returned, the Super Bowl winning teams keep the trophy. Each player of the winning team also receives a smaller replica.