Inside the Crazy World of Olympic Pin Trading

Athletes stroll through Olympic Park with them jangling in their pockets. Volunteers affix them to lanyards and swap them with journalists. A nattily garmented gentleman on my flight to Rio wore two dozen flamboyantly arrayed on his fedora.

They’re Olympic pins, and here in Rio, they’re the main points of a thriving barter economy .” It’s the currency movements the Games ,” says Dan Baker, the senior pin-head among a cadre of obsessive collectorsdisplayingtheir wares atOlympic Park.” It’s more important than fund. In fact, you can get in some places with a pin where you probably couldn’t get in if you handed them a $20 bill .”

Pin trading dates to the daybreak of the modern Olympics, when three designs were produced for the 1896 Games: One for magistrates, one for athletes, and one for officials. Production skyrocketed with the 1936 Game in Berlin; the Nazis manufactured them in the millions as tiny propaganda pieces.

In the years since, pins had now become highly collectible. Virtually every country vying arrives with boxes of them, and some produce unique pins for individual sports–a new one this year celebrates the German cycling squad. Many national press corps arrive with pins of their own design. The International Olympic Committee offers its own dignified designs, and of course sponsors hand pins of their own to anyone who asks.

Some of them are chintzy, like the pinI get from a PR rep for Bradesco, Brazils biggest bank. But most are astonishingly beautiful. They’re smalllapel pins , not campaign buttonswithintricate detail and brilliant colouring. No one can say just how many exist, but Ive seen hundreds in the three days since I arrived.

Obsessives like Baker are the most visible pin-swappers, but everyone does it. Volunteers exchange pins with journalists; journalists trade them amongst themselves; athletes swap with other athletes and hand them to taxi drivers as tips. Outside of Maracan Stadium, a few hours before the Welcoming ceremony, I considered an Egyptian athlete pull a fistful from the pockets of his orange sweatpants. Later, I watched a Moldovan man slump with disappointment after a US Organizing Committee official rebuffed his offer of a swap. Pin-seekers, too, know the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Kyle VanHemert

Baker reckons he started the modern pin-head movement at Lake Placid during the 1980 Winter Games. Shortly before the Games opened, the Missouri native received himself playing poker with one of the official merchandise licensees. Baker took his winnings in keepsakes, includingmany pins.

While selling the merchandise, Baker discovered that many visitors carried pins. Some indicated trades. Baker started sticking them on his hat and vest because he had nowhere else to put them. Everyone coveted them.” People wanted’ em more than the ones I was selling ,” he says. He’s been swapping since. Rio marks his 18 th consecutive olympiad.

” It gets addictive ,” he says.” It’s kind of like that Pokmon game. When you get a new one, you get excited, and that get you motivated to find the next one .” The comparing is apt: Ive heard that the Games most coveted pin, created by a Japanese press group, features a tiny Pikachu.

As Baker explains supply and demand in the pin economy to me, a human clothed solely in Team USA gear thrusts a hand Baker’s direction. I dont think you have this one, he says.

” Beautiful pin ,” Baker says. It features the carbon fiber wheelchair BMW designed for US Paralympians. Turning it over in his hand, he discovers that the front wheel spins.” It moves !” he calls with delight. A nearby pin-head shouts to the fellow in USA gear,” You got another one of those ?”

Kyle VanHemert

Pin-heads swap pins in a good-natured, take-whatever-you-like manner. They display them on foam committees easily stacked in a backpack at the end of the day. They display only those pinsthey’re willing to part with; personal collectings remain safely at home. Trading helps everyonestay in Olympic officers good gracesopenly selling pins almost certainly would lead to expulsion from Olympic park. Barter inevitably gives style to marketings though, especially as the Game draw to a close. In Sochi, a Russian in a sable coat and hat gave Baker $ 1,000 for a dozen good pins, a transaction Baker recounts with ambivalence.

He takes collecting severely. Three days in and hes already offered an Uber driver $ 500 Brazilian to drive him to each national squad home. He figures 30 minutes at eachwould be plenty of is high time to do business.

His favorite pins provoked specific memoriesconversations with folks from faraway places, or trades that transpired in unusual situations. Among his most memorable experiences is a trade he didnt build during the 1980 Winter Olympiad. Person offered him tickets to the US-Soviet hockey match. Baker declined, because he didnt want to see the US lose. Youknow how that turned out.” That, he says, would have been a very good trade.

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