If you look around you will notice that almost every lapel south
of Chattanooga sags like a withered magnolia leaf from the
weight of scores of Izzy pins, pictogram pins, torch pins,
poster pins, logo pins, sponsor pins, polar bear pins, guitar
pins, legacy pins, media pins, flag pins, pin-on-pin pins,
milestone pins, bid pins, venue pins, national Olympic committee
pins and pin-collecting pins.
You may also notice that my lapel is unencrusted and standing
After nearly eight faithful years in the hobby, I am hereby and
forthwith, publicly and irrevocably, declaring myself to be a
copyrighted, trademarked and officially licensed ex-, former and
erstwhile pin collector. A pin collector who is no more. A pin
collector who has ceased to be.
Yes, I'm aware that pins have always gone with the Olympics the
way up close goes with personal. I was infected in Seoul in
1988. A few days into those Summer Games I fastened my duplicate
pins onto a towel cadged from my hotel room and like a vagrant
laid it on the sidewalk, hoping to scare up some action. I
returned home with the beginnings of a collection, then joined
an association of the similarly afflicted, the Olympic
Collectors Club, and began swapping through the mail.
July 22, 1996
Packages began to appear in my mailbox from Gilbert in France,
Menashe in Israel and Tibor in Slovakia. Mike from Syracuse, a
sweet-tempered, 400-pound guy who signed letters "Pincerely,"
was only one of many Stateside characters with whom I swapped.
Another, Pat from Seattle, plans to go into police work, and
given the ingenuity with which he sources out pins, crooks will
rue the day he chose his profession.
For a few heady years--through Barcelona in 1992 and Lillehammer
in '94--a pin was more than a souvenir to me. It was a business
card doubling as an objet d'art, and the surest way to a smile
was to work out a trade. For my own collection I concentrated on
pins issued by each country's national Olympic committee (NOC).
In the years since Seoul there has been no more fascinating type
of Olympic pin than this, as nations have sprouted up like rye
grass after a spring rain. Every few months some breakaway
republic, contested corridor or only-habitable-at-low-tide atoll
declares itself part of the Olympic movement, then mints a pin,
touching off a frenzy among the hard core to add it to their
NOC pins can't be bought in stores and only rarely through pin
dealers. Because they must be ferreted out, by sending off
letters of supplication to exotic boites postales in places like
Ouagadougou, or by biennially staking out the Olympic Village,
or by swinging Jerry Krause-esque deals with other hobbyists who
might have duplicates, each enters your collection with story
and ceremony. "Zaire today, Gabon tomorrow" is the NOC
collector's credo. (And the hunt isn't just fun, boys and girls,
it's educational! You too could soon tell Mauritius from
Mauritania, Slovenia from Slovakia, Chad from Jeremy.)
Most rewardingly, NOC pins have always had character, the
no-two-are-alike quintessence that mass-produced, mass-marketed
souvenir pins can never have. I have a pin from Bhutan that
looks as if it has been hammered from tin by a monk in some
Himalayan aerie. Paraguay's pin seems to be cut from a discarded
beer can, while Uzbekistan's appears to have been kneaded out of
Play-Doh in a Tashkent day-care center. I keep two South
Africas--a politically collect pair, one black and one white. My
smallest is a hand-painted shield from Estonia on which the
Olympic rings are arrayed in a row, like a line score from a
pitching duel. As for my largest, well, let's just say that I
could cover my whole booty with Djibouti.
Other kinds of Olympic pins hold little appeal for me, and some
of the mem-horri-bilia being issued for the Atlanta Games
interest me even less. "Countdown" pins marked the days left
until the torch was to be lit. "Spec-Tacular" pins have a
built-in noose for hanging sunglasses. "Dangle" pins feature
appendages that hang like fishing lures. "Bridge" pins integrate
elements from both Lillehammer and Atlanta. And there are pins
to celebrate Valentine's Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving--every
occasion but that time Billy Payne picked up a vial of Goody's
headache powder down at the Piggly Wiggly.
After Lillehammer I had thought pin collecting was about to
enter an age of enlightened sophistication. Coca-Cola, which had
served hobbyists well by setting up pin-trading centers at every
Games since Calgary in '88, established something called the
1996 Olympic Games Pin Society. For $19.96 members received a
sumptuously illustrated calendar with collecting lore and
advice, plus a member's pin, a membership card and a monthly
publication called Pin Points--everything but a secret decoder
pin. But within a few months Pin Points had degenerated into a
mail-order catalog. Space originally devoted to tips, articles,
Q&A's and collector-to-collector classifieds was given over
almost entirely to flogging scores of grotesque new renderings
of Izzy and other dross. The only vaguely "social" aspect to
this Society was that moment when the 800-number operator asked,
"And which credit card will you be using today?"
Meanwhile the organizing committee for the Atlanta Olympics
(ACOG) had decided to seek an unprecedentedly large sum in
licensing revenue from pins: $10 million. When it became clear
that no single manufacturer could pay so handsome a guarantee,
Atlanta Centennial Olympic Properties (ACOP), ACOG's licensing
arm, sold licenses to five separate manufacturers. Having held
up licensees for huge sums, ACOP could hardly put a cap on how
many each might produce. So, to justify its extortionate outlay,
each company is turning out huge quantities of pins--by June,
ACOP had already approved more than 6,000 designs--and hanging
an unprecedentedly high price tag on each. Aminco International
and Imprinted Products, the two licensees producing most of the
pins for Atlanta, have charged retailers a base price of $3 per
pin, while pins at the last few Olympics wholesaled at $2 to
$2.50 apiece. The upshot: Collectors are paying $4.95 and up for
pins that cost 50 cents to 60 cents to make.
With so many companies producing so many units of so many
designs, collectors feel that they've been impaled on a pin
post. "Don't blame the licensees," says Pat from Seattle.
"They're just trying to recoup their fees. I blame ACOG. Every
time I think of them, I think of Scrooge McDuck sitting on a
pile of coins." An item in the January 1995 issue of Sports
Licensing International reveals just how grand ACOP's delusions
were. "ACOP believes pins will achieve and surpass the status of
the trading card as the industry's top collectible," the
newsletter reported. "The goal...is to sell one pin per person
in the U.S., or about 250 million pins." With Pin Society
membership having topped out at 80,000, those drooling estimates
will turn out to be pecan pie in the sky.
Collectibles, alas, require a measure of collectibility. A
mass-produced collectible is an oxymoron. Yet ACOP has presided
over the manufacture of some 40 million pins, authorizing more
designs than were generated for all previous Summer Games
All of this has my fellow pinheads kvetching volubly. Every
licensee but Balfour--as a ring manufacturer, it's concentrating
on high-end, jewelry-quality pins, including a five-item,
$50,000 set available (mercifully) in limited quantities--seems
to have struck its own 342-Days-until-Izzy- Boots-Up-His-IBM-
on-Thanksgiving-with-a-Torch-in-His-Hand pin, lest a sliver of
market share be lost. In this rush, dealers report that not all
manufacturers are hewing to the highest standards of quality.
And while those pins that are well-made tend, thanks to
newfangled laser-lettering and resin processes, to be as bright
and shiny as ever, bright and shiny isn't the lone standard by
which collectors judge a pin. "I remember in '84 how many people
said that pins are beautiful, that each is unique," says Leonard
from L.A. "It's hard to say that now. They're really kind of all
In their zeal to attract newcomers, ACOP and Coke are
overwhelming greenhorn hobbyists and disillusioning the veterans
who thought they had a handle on what had been a manageable
avocation. "My customers have lost interest from the onslaught,"
says one prominent pin retailer. "In 1984 you could actually
collect everything. Now people aren't even starting. The truth
is, it's bad business. The people who came up with New Coke must
have been shifted over to pins."
Worst of all, the marketing M.B.A.'s have trampled on the
heretofore sacred ground of NOC pins. Coca-Cola struck deals
with 74 national Olympic committees to design, create and market
their pins. Most longtime NOC collectors disdain these soulless
items, all produced by the same manufacturer. But it's a
regrettable development for another reason: Many of the Olympic
committees that have signed up with Coke represent impoverished
nations like Burundi and Equatorial Guinea, places where sports
officials no doubt believed that the masterful American
marketers could generate a windfall for their coffers. But each
NOC collects only a $1 royalty on every $10 pin sold. Even if
Coke sells out its inventory of a country's design, the
committee will collect barely enough to pay for a few office
supplies and phone calls.
"The whole thing has several parallels with baseball cards,"
says Leonard from L.A. "Once it was a hobby, where people traded
with each other. Now it's a business with so much overproduction
that everything's become worthless."
"Atlanta will be pin collecting's high point," adds a longtime
hobbyist. "And the beginning of the end."
The end has already come for me. Henceforth, when I have Georgia
on my mind, I will think of the state playing host to the '96
Games, not of a spare white circle with inscrutable lettering on
flat enamel. Before I get strangled on a dangle, before I go a
bridge pin too far, before I hang not my sunglasses but my own
sorry self on a Spec-Tacular pin, I'm slipping the surly bonds
of a butterfly-clutch tackback and bidding the hobby adieu.
You can take this pin and stick it.