A trophy is a physical representation of an achievement and a token of recognition. Most commonly they are associated with sporting accolades and whilst certain events such as the Olympics favour medals or American sports which issue ornate rings, a trophy is a classically iconic prize seen throughout history. The origin of the word trophy, like many western words, is from ancient Greek. The origin word is based around the notion of a military victory and the Greek word, tropaion, meant a “monument of an enemy’s defeat”.
One of the earliest recorded equivalents of a trophy which were issued for non-military achievements were laurel wreaths. Whilst we now associate gold, silver and bronze medals with the Olympics, originally the victors were awarded with laurel wreaths which were worn upon the head. However the Romans did issue them as symbols of military successes. This shows the association of martial victories with sporting achievements and given the nature of some ancient sports this is not entirely surprising. The well-known phrase “resting on one’s laurels” comes from the idea of someone continuing to thrive off accolades long since spent and no longer relevant.
Chalices and Cups
By the late 1600’s trophies were starting to become more akin to how we now associate them. Chalices and cups started to become new representations of victory and evidence of a sterling cup, the Kyp Cup, was given to the victor of a horse race in New England. Cups issued in these times were highly valuable and were normally made from silver as this was a highly valuable material in these times.
Now we are all very aware of some of the more famous cups and trophies. Some sports name them specifically as cups which still somewhat resemble the implied shape, such as the European Cup in soccer, the America’s Cup in sailing, the Ryder Cup in golf and the Webb Ellis Cup in Rugby. However the trophy has evolved into an item which, whilst still celebrating a victory, can take numerous forms and designs. The Larry O’Brien Trophy in the NBA looks like a basketball about to drop into the net, the Ashes Urn which is small and unimpressive looking but highly symbolic and historical and the modern day World Cup trophy.
Whilst the previously listed trophies are, on the whole, made of valuable materials the concept of issuing inexpensive trophies to commemorate less affluent and smaller-scale events has become quite common. Trophies can be issued to school children who have been performing well or in the work place at end of year award ceremonies. Nowadays you can approach a trophy shop and have something designed which will represent whatever it is you wish. From team sporting achievements to spoof presents, different price ranges and levels of detail have become widely available, often with engraving services to personalise them and at reasonable costs. So you can see, even though trophies have changed enormously over the years the basic concept remains and the tradition of presenting them to a ‘victor’ or, at least, an exceptional performer stands as true today as it did in ancient Greek times.