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Saturday’s Sochi Olympic gold medalists receive gift from space

One year ago today, a 10-ton asteroid plunged into Earth's atmosphere and exploded, shattering the cold calm of the morning sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia. To commemorate the event, athletes nabbing an Olympic gold medal today in Sochi will add another, rarer prize to their collection.

A second set of medals has been minted, made from bronze and nickel and plated with gold and silver. A small piece of the meteorite adorns these medals. The gold medal athletes of events in speedskating, cross-country and alpine skiing, ski jumping and skeleton will receive one of these meteorite medals in addition to the standard gold medals.

"We will hand out our medals to all the athletes who will win gold on that day, because both the meteorite strike and the Olympic Games are global events," said Alexei Betekhtin, the culture minister for the Chelyabinsk region, according to USA Today.

[ Related: Russian meteor blast thrust asteroid danger into spotlight 1 year ago today ]

Space.com photoAccording to RT.com, 50 of the medals were actually minted. Victorious athletes will receive the medals in a separate, special ceremony. Sochi officials were still negotiating with the International Olympic Committee regarding how to distribute the metals, but according to Reuters, the IOC deemed the gift "too spacey" for the Olympics.

"We have said there is no point to do it during the Games. If they want to give something to the athletes after the Games they can do it," Gilbert Felli, executive director of the Olympic games, told Reuters. "But athletes get the gold medals awarded by the organizing committee and there is no extra gift from this region of Russia during the medal presentation."

The leftover meteorite medals will apparently be distributed to Olympic committees, museums and private collections.

While no one died due to the shockwave caused by the meteorite explosion, more than 1,500 people sought medical treatment and the damage was estimated at close to $33 million US.

Fragments of the meteorite rained down across the city and the surrounding countryside, but the bulk of it — weighing roughly half a ton — crashed through the ice covering nearby Lake Chebarkul. The crash site was located shortly after the event, although it was months before divers were able to locate the meteorite on the lake bottom and pull it up onto shore.

[ More Geekquinox: Weird Science Weekly: Not sure if the milk is off? Text that smell for a second opinion ]

These precious medals aren't Sochi's only link to space.

The Sochi Olympic torch flew to the International Space Station, during its relay to the games in early November. This makes it the third space-tourist torch in Olympic history, following similar jaunts before the 1996 and 2000 games. However, this was the first torch to actually be taken out on a spacewalk. Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy took the torch all the way around the outside of the ISS before returning to the station's interior.

(Photo courtesy: Reuters)

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