I GUESS I've been a pinhead my whole life. That's what my brothers tell me
anyway. But today I am an Olympic pinhead. Standing proud and packed
with a starter kit of 10 Olympic pins, I have decided to jump into what is by
far the fiercest competition here in Atlanta, the mammoth world of trading
pins. Something that began at the 1908 Paris Games as a way to bring athletes
together from around the globe is now a bloated half billion dollar industry
with armed security guards watching many of the 50 million transactions in tin
taking place here during the next two weeks.
This skilled trader registered an unaturally high pin density.
On tables and stuck to towels, sashes, hats and cork board, ranging in price from a buck to the five-figure range, there are ACOG pins, pins from every single Games, Bid pins, Countdown pins, Venue pins, Sponsor pins (my trade bait), IOC pins and individual National Olympic Committee pins from each of the 197 countries. There are Cabbage Patch pins, Jeopardy pins, Elvis pins, pins with thermometers on them (so, I guess, those people who walk around covered in what looks like a tin suit of armor know exactly how hot it was when they passed out). And, of course, they have Izzy-doing-everything-but-mooning-ACOG president Billy Payne pins. If you search the internet for Olympic and Pin, you get 46,178 hits, er, make that 46,179 hits.
The rarest pin here is the first Atlanta bid pin that has "Live the Dream" on it. Here's where the mess starts: There are currently 14 versions of this rare gem, not counting the knock offs.
Anybody willing to trade five Izzies for a Sports Illustrated pin?
Whatever you do find, however, instantly becomes the best possible currency at these Games. We got information on Izzy's whereabouts with a pin handshake, so to speak. Someone coaxed the custodians at the press center into fixing several air conditioning vents with a single pin from the Barcelona Games. And as soon as I find a Cobi mascot pin from 1992 for the maid at my hotel I will have an unlimited supply of Comfort Inn shower caps.
My mission now clear, I dig in and step toward my first trader at a 24-hour-a-day area tabbed PIN-tathlon `96 next to the Atlanta restaurant called The Varsity, which was required to turn over 1,300 of its own pins by the ACOG cops a while back after the five batter-colored onion rings on their pins were deemed to look too much like the Olympic rings.
While ACOG nixed the Varsity pin (left), we tried our own version.
As I move in for my first swap at Cobi a grandmotherly women with, oh say, 18,000 pins on her hat, gives me a forearm shiver that would have knocked the wind out of Greg Lloyd. "They're just 30 cent pieces of tin, but people sure do get all weird over them," says Tyler Rheem, a trader from Boulder, Colo., stationed at the sanitized Coke tent where only trades are allowed; although cash exchanges are set up regularly under hushed tones like spies exchanging microfilm. "We had people sprinting and knocking people out of the way the minute the gates opened yesterday," said Rheem.
Pin trading is not for the weak. And pull up those waders, too. BS is the king pin.
This sweet old lady skinned me alive.
The problem is nobody knows what the hell anything is worth and there's virtually no way to tell an official 1932 Los Angeles ACOG pin from something you might find in a Burger World Happy Meal. "Is this Cobi pin authentic?" I ask a vendor with a We Take Visa! sign hanging behind him. "Yeah sure. Of course it is. I think. Heck, a friend of mine got it in Spain. But I don't speak Spanish. So who knows. Wanna trade or what?"
One hapless vendor was run over by a truck.
I pad my chest looking for a pin that says SUCKER on it. Then a guy comes up and unfurls a towel full of pins, like a dude selling watches inside his overcoat. "Whatcha need?" He says. I offer an SI pin. The man looks it over. He gets out a magnifying glass. He shows it to other vendors. He double checks my credential. "Give me two SI's for the Cobi." Not a chance, pally. I try to call his bluff and turn to walk away. But he vanishes.
And just like that, I'm hooked. Get out of my way. I get it now. It's sort of like chess. You swap for the Velveeta pin, knowing Bob over there will trade you that for his Tidy Bowl pin, which you can then take to Sue who gives you the Odor Eater pin you've had your eye on all day. In other words, you get personally invested, caught up in the hunt, and quickly turn into a pin weasel. I catch myself telling the 12-year-old filling in for her dad that she "better hurry up and pull the trigger on this deal or you'll be costin the old man a huge score." I interrupt a friend in mid-trade and squeeze him out of a deal so I can land that precious Cobi pin. Mine, mine, it's all mine I say!
We nearly come to blows.
So now I'm a full-fledged Olympic pinhead, pinhead. Anybody need an extra shower cap?
Photographs by Peter Kay
And don't miss:
Day 1: Carbo-Nation
Day 2: Pindemonium
SI Online Decathlon
A Dream Deferred
Waiting for Izzy
The Munich 11 Remembered