LONDON — My mission for this post: unload my entire stash of Sports Illustrated Live From London pins — 25 in all — for the most obscure Olympic collection possible.
The SI pins (shown above) come in five colors and, as I found out during my wanderings in and just outside Olympic Park, their trade value is massively inconsistent. American and Canadian collectors coveted full sets of SIs, but Europeans were mostly disinterested; one Spanish pin heavyweight dismissed my SI-for-Botswana National Olympic Committee trade proposal with a disgusted noise and a wave of his hand, and that was that. I never did get a Botswana, but according to my standards of strangeness, I managed to do quite well.
The pin-trading hotspot at these Games is not in the Park. It’s the area just outside the gate to the Athletes’ Village, near Stratford International Train Station, where veteran traders — including this Zen-like fellow below — have been camped out for the duration. There’s something more esteemed about Olympic pin-trading than there is about sports-card collecting; it still attracts people with that obsessive collecting gene, but Olympic country pins at least started in the hands of someone from Iran or Ireland or Indonesia, and were swapped for something rather than sold. They have a real provenance.
It took me only two minutes in pin alley to spot my first trading target: an Afghanistan NOC, on the lanyard of a Games security worker on break. He wanted two SIs for it. Easy deal. To one of the dealers, I paid the same two-SI price (new pin count: 21) for a Somalia NOC with a monkey perched on top. This seemed like a huge steal, getting an elaborate pin from a third-world country that doesn’t exactly have a ton of money to spend on the Olympics.
It turns out you can get far more obscure than Afghanistan and Somalia: A trader named Cash, from Calgary, had two Cayman Islands NOC turtles and was not willing to part with them easily. This seemed like a must-have during an election year where the Romney family has a horse in the Olympics and and fat stacks of money hidden in the Caymans.
After some haggling, Cash agreed to four SIs (completing his set, since he already had one) for the green turtle and two PTBNL, which were determined to be a corporate Norway (meh) and a Lithuania NOC, from the row above. I still have a soft spot for Lietuva after traveling there to write a feature on their basketball-mad country last summer, so this was a welcomed throw-in to the Caymans deal. A trader from Seattle then flipped me the Thailand elephant at right for two more SIs, and my stash was down to 15.
Not wanting assemble too general of a collection — remember, the mission was to get weird — I started hunting down sport-specific country pins on one-for-one deals: Ukrainian boxing, Bangladesh Handball Federation and Chinese archery. The guy flipping all the Ukrainian boxing pins was one of their coaches, who despite not knowing English was doing a healthy trade by just going up to traders, saying “boxing? boxing?” and then pointing at stuff he wanted. That’s how it works at the Olympics.
I soon met a guy who was walking around with a backpack full of shotgun shells. Not just any shells, mind you: “These were from the Royal Artillery Barracks,” he said. “I was working there during the men’s trap finals, and gathered them up.” The shells said “Olympic Edition” on the side, and he was hoping to trade them for pins. The hardcore collectors weren’t overly interested, but I was. One SI for one shell. Solid trade. After an SI-for-Monaco deal with another trader, I was down to 10.
If there was one collection I envied, it was that of Stan from L.A., who was on the same mission and had clearly invested a lot more time into it. His UPenn hat was covered with an elite collection of obscure NOC pins — Burundi, the Caymans, United Arab Emirates, Guatemala, even Syria. I met Stan in the official trading zone of Olympic Park, where a serious trader with a massive bag of pins was practically begging him for the Syria NOC. (Countries in heavy turmoil tend to be hot commodities, and apparently a South Sudan pin is the holy grail at these Games. I never found one.)
“Come on, man,” the trader was saying. “There’s gotta be something you’ll take for Syria. Please. Just tell me what you want.”
Stan just kept shaking his head. “Look. I’m sorry. I’m not gonna do it.”
Stan wasn’t interested in my SIs, either. He said that he would have to get “something that would change my life” in order to part with his Syria, or for that matter, most of his super-obscure finds. They just meant too much to him.
There was, however, another L.A.-based trader, Bob Kalmuk, who also had a killer collection of country pins … and was looking for a full set of SIs. (That’s him in the photo below.) I decided it was time to engineer my first complete-set deal.
Bob was the hook-up: For all five SI colors, he gave me a Macau, which doesn’t have a team but apparently has a committee (does it include Shelden Adelson?); a Tajikistan; a dinged-up Syria, which Stan was pretty impressed by; a Bangladesh and a Maldives. I was delighted by this smorgasboard of obscurity, despite the fact that these countries have just one medal between them — a women’s lightweight boxing bronze by Tajikistan’s Mavzuna Chorieva. I one-for-oned an SI for a Dominican Republic NOC from a Spanish trader, and with just five pins left to trade, my collection was finally looking legit.
Rather than trickle to the finish, I opted to make another complete-set trade as a grand finale. Another Calgary-based trader outside the Athletes’ Village said he’d be willing to part with choice country pins for all five SIs, and so we worked out a deal for Guatemala’s official broach-like pin (sought-after due to its originality), Iran NOC and, for my weirdest nation of all, Kiribati. The Micronesian island has just three Olympians, including a weightlifter whose unibrow would make Anthony Davis proud … and I now have one of their pins. On this mission, that was enough to make me proud.