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Olympic obsession: little pins

For some, going for the gold means dealing in souvenirs from Games.

August 07, 2004|Michael Ordona | Times Staff Writer

They seem like anyone else. They're bankers, printers, husbands and wives, even celebrities. But they have a dirty little secret. They're trapped in the throes of an obsession that can strain marriages and even ruin lives.

"These little pieces of metal have amazing powers over people " says veteran collector and dealer Jeff Fleming of Utah. "Olympic pins are like dope or gambling."

Among the famous Olympic pin addicts are Katie Couric, Ahmad Rashad and Jim Nabors, as well as such athletes as Rick Barry and third-generation Olympian Jimmy Shea, reportedly a hard-core trader. It's a hobby that seems innocent ... until you're hooked.

There are dozens of websites devoted to the hobby and hordes of collectors around the world waiting like hawks to swoop down upon new styles the instant they're minted. They can be as simple as a flag with the famed rings logo or as ornate as a large, blooming golden flower containing many small symbols within.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympic memorabilia -- A photo caption in Saturday's Calendar section with an article about Olympic pin collectors implied that the torch pictured was a miniature replica. It was a full-sized torch from the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Media outlets create their own, such as NBC's video camera pin with a flashing red light. Corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola lure victims with series pins that drive buyers to distraction, fearing to miss even one in the set. Thousands of different designs are fashioned for each Olympics, with sales at Sydney reportedly reaching 65 million pins in 2000. Major corporations help spread the pandemic by setting up trading areas in cities hosting the Games, drawing mobs of wild-eyed enthusiasts.

"We used to see the sun come up on Figueroa; we were out there all night trading during the Los Angeles Games," says Suzanne Papazian, who has attended 11 Olympics in a row. Papazian tells of completing a set of pins while in Nagano that formed the shape of a Coke bottle for about $100, then selling it right away to a desperate Japanese collector for $1,000. Of course, she had also assembled a set for herself. Fleming says, "It's like a panic attack; it's like buck fever, you find insanity among people during the Games. When people have to have something, they'll pay anything for it. It takes over your common sense."

Fleming says he has witnessed many an ugly scene over pins, like the former torch-bearer who resorted to shoplifting them from Fleming's store and another obsessed client who spent himself into an inextricable hole for pins, beautiful pins. "He ended up in a hospital under a suicide watch, all because of pins."

Some will do just about anything for a fix. Ray Erwin of Los Angeles, who estimates his collection at 10,000 pieces, says that a woman in Barcelona asked him for six pins in exchange for her company for the night. Not even six valuable items, he emphasizes, just ones with the words "Barcelona 1992" on them. (A married man, Erwin declined the offer.)

Richard Murray of Ontario, Calif., a respiratory therapist and longtime member of the New York-based Olympin Club, the hobby's largest organization, is working to set up the club's 23rd annual collector's show in October, which for the first time will be held in Los Angeles.

"Atlanta and Orlando bid on the '04 show, but we won," he says proudly. The club expects 1,000 to 2,000 attendees at the Wilshire Grand Hotel for the event. He still holds out hope that he'll find that ultra-rare 1900 Paris jury pin he's been hungrily seeking, perhaps at the show.

It starts out so innocently: a free offer on a Coke can, a gift from a friend. But as they discover, only the first one is free.

Another Olympin-ian, Erwin says he got started when his company printed the tickets for the 1984 Los Angeles Games, earning the company its own set of pins. His boss gave him a bag to trade on his behalf, plus "one bag to keep. I went down to Brookside Park -- and that's how I got started."

Often, pins can be gateway items, leading to harder stuff. Collectors might trade bunches of ordinary pins for a few rare ones, then parlay those into such prizes as torches or athletes' participation medals. And then the big payoff can come: bronze, silver and even gold medals.

"I have an Atlanta gold medal," says Scott Reed of Georgia. He obtained the item "from a fellow collector who got it from a female Russian cyclist. I don't know why she gave it up, but there are medals available."

In non-Olympic years, pin traders can fall on hard times.

"Prices go up [around] the Games, then maybe 95% of collectors will say, 'Enough is enough,' " says Utah's Fleming. "They'll frame them and forget about it until the next Olympics. Right now, the market is deader than a doornail. I've got pins on EBay that retail for $7 selling for $4.95. It's flat; it's unlike any other Olympics."

Fleming blames this lull before the upcoming Athens Games in part on what he calls the Greeks' "negative spin on the pins that are produced in the U.S.A. The hype is that they're not authentic, not licensed, which is not true. It may get ugly for those U.S. collectors who are going to travel to Greece in an effort to sell or trade pins."

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