Don Bigsby is in Sochi for the Winter Olympics. Bob Boehm isn’t there, a last-minute scratch. For both men, though, the Games mean more than athletic feats to cheer and medal counts to track. Their arrival means a new batch of Olympic pins are in circulation, a biennial bonanza to hobbyists like Bigsby and Boehm, whose personal pin collections run well into the thousands.
“It gets to be a real frenzy, the number of people trading pins” at an Olympic site, said Bigsby, 73, a retired telephone company engineer from upstate New York, as he prepared to leave for Russia. Bigsby cofounded Olympin, a collectors’ club with 550 members in 32 countries, and expects to spend much of his time in Sochi in pursuit of Olympic loot.
Boehm, a retired Lowell schoolteacher, had planned to be in Russia, too. A veteran of 13 Olympics, he canceled his trip in mid-January due to a family health issue. However, he’s already scooped up a fistful of Sochi pins handed out at a traveling Olympics exhibit in Boston, adding to the 5,000 pins he already owns.
“I’m in it more as a hobby than anything,” says Boehm, who often wears a hat decorated with 120 pins when out trading or attending a collectors show. Buying and selling pins? Not his style. Meeting and greeting folks, then trading with them: That’s his thing.
Anyone who’s attended a modern Olympics — in Bigsby’s case, this will be his 16th — has seen pin trading become a sporting event in its own right, complete with specialized equipment (hats, vests, foam boards) and designated venues. Collectors congregate outside athletes’ quarters and media centers, in coffee shops and on street corners, and in booths set up expressly to facilitate trading. At times an Olympic Village — especially during the winter games, which are typically held in smaller, more navigable venues — resembles a huge outdoor swap meet.
Kevin Andreychuk, operations manager for Pins.com, an online custom-made pin seller, says the Olympics represent “the biggest pin trading event of the year,” in part due to the many corporate sponsors who flood the Games with merchandise and memorabilia.
“Any company like Coca-Cola or Budweiser that’s marketing over there will probably have a special pin or two designed,” notes Andreychuk. Each country and individual sport also mints pins to show off and trade, as do major media entities such as NBC and Reuters. Many collectors take bags full of duplicates with them to trade onsite, then lug home hundreds of new pins to catalog and display to friends and family.
What these pins are worth, now or in the future, depends on supply and demand, according to the Pins.com website. Generally, the most valuable are ones issued by National Olympic Committees, followed, in descending order, by media, sponsor, and commemorative pins. Age, condition, origin, and availability also govern their worth to collectors.
One market gauge is eBay, where Olympic pins of virtually every vintage and description can be found. A large number fall into the $1 to $20 range, although rarer specimens may list for far more. A Coca-Cola bottle-puzzle pin set from the 2006 Torino Games, for instance, is priced at $795. Other exotic specimens may fetch four figures or more.
Boehm began his collecting on a modest scale. Attending the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, he brought home a single pin. Yet that one small prize got him hooked.
Trips to Montreal (’76) and Lake Placid (’80) further fueled his interest, which received its biggest boost at the ’84 Los Angeles Olympics. Peter Ueberroth, then the US Olympic chief, had recruited a deep bench of corporate sponsors, Boehm recalls, virtually all of which made their own Olympic pins. Meanwhile, Sam the Eagle, the official Olympic mascot, turned up on dozens more pins, official or not, creating a veritable boom market in memorabilia trading.
“My collection probably grew 10 times over” in LA, says Boehm, whose cache includes a German pin from the ’36 Berlin Games, complete with swastika.
In 2010, Boehm took his young nephew, Declan Sullivan, to the London Olympics. Declan, now 10, was given 50 pins — some tradable, some not — to display on a vest he wore while negotiating deals with fellow collectors. He returned from London with 70 to 80 pins, which he keeps in his bedroom. His most prized, he says, is a US swim team pin, along with a photo of himself holding an Olympic torch.
“I’m going to keep [collecting],” he vows, “and maybe go to Rio in 2016.”
Bigsby’s first Olympics, in Lake Placid in ’80, similarly lit a flame that has not gone out since.
“It was a life-changing experience,” says Bigsby, who in 2012 was awarded the Juan Antonio Samaranch Medal for Olympic Collecting, named after the former International Olympic Committee head. “Friends now call me the king of overkill.”
In 1982, Bigsby helped launch Olympin, now the world’s largest Olympic memorabilia club. It hosts an annual exhibit and trading show, operates a website (www.olympinclub.com), and publishes a guide to pin collecting, among other resources.
By the late ’80s, Bigsby had personally amassed 20,000 pins, the core of a collection that also includes medallions, torches, and other memorabilia. Even after narrowing his focus to two pin types — those given to the athletes and those carried by media members — Bigsby has acquired enough Olympic stuff to fill a 2,200-square-foot exhibit space built in back of his house, which he opens to local schoolchildren and other interested parties.
Almost none of what Bigsby owns has been paid for with cash. In fact, he believes that exchanging money cheapens the collecting experience.
“I feel that’s insulting,” he says. When trading, “I want a memory to give them, and to get a memory from them in return.”
So, too, has the Internet robbed collecting of some of what makes it special, Bigsby maintains. “It’s taken a little bit of the fun out of it,” he says. “You can find just about anything on a website these days, but it’s less personal” than making trades in person.
Like Bigsby, Jonathan Bekemeir says the most rewarding part is the people one meets and the stories one hears. A television commercial director who lives in Malden, Bekemeir was only 13 when his parents took him to the ’80 Lake Placid Olympics.
“It was where we first understood about pin trading,” he says. “You put pins on a hat, a jacket, whatever, walk up to people and see if they want to trade.”
While the pins themselves are nice to have — he owns roughly 1,000 — “The cool thing is interacting with coaches and athletes,” Bekemeir says.
Whether that happens in Sochi, at least to a degree that satisfies serious pin collectors, remains to be seen. Given the well-publicized security concerns, Bigsby sounded unsure last week. Allowing groups of traders to stand around on street corners, he said, or to approach athletes making their way around the Olympic Village, might be unrealistic.
“But the Russians are really into pins,” Bigsby added. “So maybe there’s hope.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.