FOX Sports Exclusive
Pin collectors get obsessiveness gold
The white-haired man from Branson, Mo., sat on the cement outside the Stratford International train station. He was strategically located at the thrumming center of the 2012 Summer Olympics, where thousands of Olympians and journalists and spectators jetted from here to there, some on the way to the nearby Olympic Park, some heading to go shopping or have lunch or down a pint at the gigantic Westfield Mall, some rushing to catch a train.
A few people paused in front of the white-haired man, peered down, and stared. On the ground before him were hundreds of miniature double-decker buses and Union Jacks and Mickey Mouses and McDonald’s arches.
I took off my backpack and sat down next to him. I wanted to find out what sort of obsession drives a man to attend 14 different Olympiads since his first, in Lake Placid in 1980. I wanted to find the joy in having a collection of some 30,000 Olympic pins. I wanted to find out more about this fascinating Olympic subculture of pin-trading.
So I asked.
“You got a pin?” Dan Baker retorted.
No pin, no interview. It’s the only currency worth anything in this subculture.
I reached into my backpack and pulled out one of the FOX Sports London 2012 pins I’d been given upon my arrival in London, a beautiful little piece of metal with the London Eye, Tower Bridge and Big Ben in the background.
“That’s a small pin,” he complained. “I’ll give you a short interview.”
So went my introduction to this strange, obsessive bit of color you’ll find at every Olympic Games.
Baker told me he started collecting pins, during the Winter Olympics in 1980, when a guy owed him money for a poker game and gave Baker a slew of Olympic merchandise instead. Baker tried selling those pins in Lake Placid for $3 apiece, but people preferred to trade for them, so a collection began.
He told me about the most he’s ever sold a pin for: $750 during the Atlanta Olympics, a rare pin from a drive-in burger joint called The Varsity that had been discontinued because it had infringed on the Olympic trademark. He told me about the night before, when he was at a Starbucks and traded pins with a basketball player from the Russian women’s team.
“How else could a guy like me get to do something like that?” he said.
Next to Baker, lining the barrier into the train station — the only place these guys were allowed to set up shop except the Coca-Cola Pin Trading Centre in the Olympic Park, which these pin traders derided as corporate baloney, not the real thing — were dozens of men (and a few women) just like him.
Their pins were spread on the ground like an open-air jewelry exhibition. They spoke in deference about a pin trader here who’d brought a pin from the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics: rare, very rare indeed.
They moaned about the London Olympic organizers and how restrictive they were of pin traders. (One guy got arrested for selling a pin for five pounds, one complained.)
They’d come from around the world, from America and China, Greece and Belgium, Spain and Russia and France and Canada. What they enjoyed about the Olympics wasn’t the patriotism or the togetherness or the athletic achievements.
Sure, the interesting travel and the surprising experiences, like when a Chinese gold medalist in gymnastics stopped by the other day, were fun. But that’s wasn’t what they truly enjoyed. What they enjoyed about the Olympics was getting the next damn pin.
“It just became like — don’t write this down, now — like heroin,” said Bill Cash, a Calgary man who attended his first Olympics in 1988 in his hometown. “That’s the sad thing. Most of us have gotten to the extreme that we can’t enjoy them as good as we should. There’s so many of them, in hundreds of trays instead of on the wall.”
His favorite pin? The first one he ever got, in Calgary in 1988, an Olympic pin from Canadian Tire. It means something to him, because it’s where Cash started this obsession: “It’s the ugliest pin you’ve ever seen. If you saw it, you’d step on it.”
Make fun of these collectors if you want. It’s pretty easy, really, as it is to make fun of anyone with any sort of odd obsession. I collected baseball cards when I was younger and had thousands of them. That made me a rather large dork, just like these pin collectors.
But is this obsessive hobby really any different than any other hobby? Is it different than spending $10,000 on a mountain bike, as Cash pointed out? Is it different than buying a new set of golf clubs when your old set is only two years old? Is it different than buying the newfangled-est cell phone or camera when you know the price will drop in a few months?
As these folks were trading pins and stories with passersby, a new addict was getting his first rush.
Stefan Stychev had traveled here from his home in Bulgaria. He was staying with his sister in South London. This was his first Olympics. He was almost embarrassed at his piddly collection, but he was proud to say he designed some of them, like the one on his lapel for a Bulgarian soccer team’s fan club. His eyes got huge when he spoke of his favorite pin back home, as if he were talking about his child: a golden badge commemorating Slavia, one of the oldest soccer teams in Bulgaria. The pin was rare, made back in 1913. He purchased it for $500.
“This is the start,” he said, showing his collection of a hundred or so pins. “After this, it’s a sickness. You can’t stop.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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