The trophy 30.11.14

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Over the past century, prize-giving has grown into a $20 billion global industry. But does victory smell as sweet in a world where even the trophy makers have awards ceremonies?

The first trophy appeared on the battlefields of ancient Greece. Known as the tropaion, it was a grisly affair in which the armour of the dead and defeated foe was hung on the branches of a nearby tree. Simple and cheap to construct, it clearly showed who had lost and the terms of their defeat.

If one compares the original tropaion to the trophies and awards of today, one cannot help but feel that the symbol of victory has undergone an evolutionary descent. Visit a sports shop and you will inevitably discover the trophy section, full of mass-produced figurines, cups and salvers made of tin, plastic and resin.

These trophies celebrate victories that have yet to occur, and in their unengraved state they seem meaningless and trivial. Yet even in this unfulfilled role, they do represent a victory of sorts, if only for the giant awards industry that created them and has deemed them indispensable to a life of accomplishment.

The awards business is estimated as being worth around $3 billion in the US and Canada, and up to $20 billion worldwide. This is not so surprising if you have ever laid eyes on Gale's much-prized catalogue Awards, Honors & Prizes, both a touchstone and a millstone (it comes in two volumes and costs over $1,000) of the industry, that lists over 24,000 internationally recognised awards given in more than 130 countries.

But that's just for starters, for you have to add on the millions of trophies given out by companies to their employees, or by schools to their pupils. OC Tanner, an "appreciatology" company in the US, ships some 3.2 million corporate awards a year, while the branches of the American Youth Soccer Organization typically spend 12 per cent of their annual budgets on trophies alone. Increasingly, studies are showing that being too liberal in the awarding of trophies to children – the idea that "everyone must always win" – does not inspire so much as indulge underachievement.

Does the fact that a similar inflation has taken place in national and international prizes in sports, sciences and the arts mean that the same is occurring there? According to James F English, author of the fascinating The Economy of Prestige (2005), the blame for the exponential growth in prize-giving of the last century can be traced to the first awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901.

Awards had existed for cultural activities before, of course. As far back as the 6th century BC, the laurel wreath had crowned winners at both the ancient Olympics and the dramatic competitions in Greece. But the Nobel Prize for Literature "seized the collective imagination ... [and] raised prizes from a rather incidental form of cultural activity a hundred years ago to an undeniably central form today".

As the number of cultural trophies grew – aided by the rise of national academies and professional associations – a whole new industry swelled to meet this demand. However, the firms who design and make the world's best known awards are little known themselves. Medallic Art Company, RS Owens and the peculiarly anonymous Recognition Products International are the producers of the Pulitzer Prize and Peabody medals and the Oscar and Emmy statuettes, but it is a necessity that their names do not compete with the prizes' brands.

Awards must seem unsullied by a manufacturer, for the symbolic weight that the most prestigious prizes hold demands that they must seem to be handed down from above, the gift of something almost suprahuman.

This is not to say that the trophy makers of today are not heralded. In a particularly incestuous move, the Awards and Recognition Association presents awards to the year's best awards at its annual awards gala in Las Vegas. Along with "Best Trophy" and "Best Plaque", trophy designers battle it out for such categories as "Best Sandblasting", "Best Engraving" and "Best Sublimation". And what do the winners win? A trophy of course, with last year's awards being acrylic obelisks designed by the firm Awards4U. Truly the prize of prizes.

This article first appeared in our January 2014 issue



George Pendle


Image: Aleksandra Mir

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The awards business is estimated as being worth around $3 billion in the US and Canada, and up to $20 billion worldwide

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