ATLANTA — It used to be a guest room. Now the space in Bill Gornto's home is occupied by thousands of little metal Olympic mascots, torches, corporate logos and even an elephant from Thailand.
Gornto has been stuck by the Olympic pin bug. He's part of a hobby that has been growing steadily and is expected to reach its pinnacle at the Centennial Games next year in Atlanta.
"My wife shakes her head in disbelief," Gornto said. "Devoting a room to Olympic pins seems kind of silly. But it's in the spirit of it, so she accepts it."
"It's fun, safe and relatively simple. It's not too expensive--it can be," the 39-year-old photographer said as he showed off his collection, encased in frames that are spread across two walls of the spare room.
One of his favorites: Atlanta Games mascot Izzy riding in a Wells Fargo armored truck.
Commemorative Olympic pins have been around almost as long as the Games themselves. In the early days, the pins usually featured symbols of the national teams and were traded mainly among athletes and a small clique of hobbyists.
At the Los Angeles Games in 1984, the hobby took off among the general public as pins produced specifically for commercial sale became prevalent.
With the Centennial Games on the way, organizers in Atlanta have authorized licensees to produce 3,000 designs for sale. Informal collector clubs are sprouting, and each week seems to bring a new swap meet, newsletter or Internet trading post.
Atlanta Pin Pals, a club co-founded by Gornto, has designed its own pin for members.
The officially sanctioned club, the Olympic Games Pin Society, is sponsored by The Coca-Cola Co. About 39,000 people paid $19.96 apiece to join after a full-page advertisement appeared in the Atlanta Games ticket brochure.
Atlanta Olympic officials say about $10 million worth of 1996 pins have been sold already. Most sell for about $5 apiece. In Atlanta, they are available at hundreds of retail outlets.
"If you've been around the Olympics, you know how big pins are during the Games. We wanted to get people involved before the Games," said Bob Hollander, vice president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games' marketing operation.
"This will probably be the largest licensing program in the history of the Olympic Games," Hollander said.
Not all collectors cheer this kind of growth.
Don Bigsby, the founder of the Olympin Collectors Club in Schenectady, N.Y., the oldest group for traders, welcomes the increased interest in the hobby, but thinks too many pins are being made.
"There's more made for Atlanta than the last three Summer Olympics combined," said Bigsby, whose collection includes 15,000 pins.
"Fifty million pins instead of 10 million doesn't make it good for the collector," he said. "The draw of the hobby is the thrill of searching and finding things. When you just go to the store, that's not much of a thrill, and that's what Atlanta is poised to do."
Nevertheless, Bigsby said he'll be in Atlanta next summer.
"The best part is yet to come. You go to the Games and meet people from all over," he said. "It's a great feeling to shake hands with someone from the Ukraine--you can't speak to each other but you can exchange pins."
There's an unwritten rule among traders that you don't do it to make money. That helps unite a relative newcomer like Gornto, who has been collecting two years, and a seasoned trader like Bigsby, who's been at it 15 years.
"Nobody should get into it for the monetary value," Bigsby said. "That's dangerous, especially with 25,000 of this or 100,000 of that. If I get money from doing it, I spend it to buy more."
Gornto doesn't consider his collection a financial investment, something to be cashed in.
"I'll hang on to them, absolutely," he said. "I'd like to hand them down to my kids."
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Five Rarest Olympic Pins
Five of the rarest Olympic pins, according to Olympin Collectors Club president Don Bigsby:
--Brandenburg Gate from 1936 Berlin Summer Games.
--ABC pin from 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games.
--Primary logo from any pre-1960 Games.
--Thailand team elephant mascot from 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.
--Soviet flag with raised hammer and sickle, from any Games, 1972-88.