The hottest sports collectible of the 1980s is a tiny piece of enameled jewelry that costs 60 to 90 cents to produce and retails for about five bucks. It is the Olympic pin, and it owes a debt to the Byzantine Empire, the desert tortoise and a parking lot at the corner of 39th St. and Figueroa in Los Angeles.
Intrigued? Read on. You may want to become a pinhead yourself.
What is a pinhead? It's someone who has been taken with a desire to collect pins. Pinheads, as even the collectors call themselves, have been known to offer as much as $6,000 for a single Burmese Olympic pin. In 1984 a California pinhead bought stock in several corporations just to get more of their Olympic sponsorship pins. Pinheads bargain, beg, plead and occasionally turn into pin counterfeiters to sustain their habit. They are elderly women in Pomona and eight-year-olds in Nashville and corporate vice-presidents in New York who sport silly baseball caps crowded with constellations of pins. "Some of them, I think, are crazy," says Eddie Chein, whose Commerce, Calif.-based company, Ooh La La! Inc., produced an estimated 30 million pins as official pin licensee of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Pinheads first appeared in large numbers during those Summer Games, on the aforementioned parking lot, which happens to be across the street from the L.A. Coliseum. As many as 20,000 collectors a day—most with cash in their pockets and Olympic fever inflaming their senses—crowded into hectic and hot pin swapping and selling tents set up on the lot. The result was pin hysteria.
People tore apart $300 framed sets to sell pins individually at huge profits. A woman's purse was stolen, then found—with no cash missing, only pins. L.A. lawyer Gary Ruttenberg recalls being beset by pinheads while crossing Figueroa. "I sold $325 worth of pins and never stopped walking," he says. A collector offered Chein $50,000 cash for every pin in his booth. Gift Creations Inc. of North Hollywood, licensee of the boycotted 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, suddenly sold out its entire warehouse of Moscow pins. "One day we couldn't give them away, the next they were selling for $8 and $10," says Steve Klein, the company's executive vice-president, still shaking his head.
Rest assured, a similar fever will grip Calgary, site of the XV Winter Olympics. While some pinheads work the street corners and mountainsides, others will hunker down in either of the Games' two planned pin-swapping centers: one next to the athletes' village, the other downtown, just 50 yards from Olympic Plaza, where each night the Olympic medals will be awarded.
The downtown center, to be known as the Coca-Cola/Calgary International Plaza, will be a heated, 22,000-square-foot tent. Half of it will house a food festival and the other half will be dedicated to a carnival of pin swapping and selling. The trading area will be open 12 hours a day and will feature an audiovisual system that will carry pin-trading instructional films and all the latest in pin gossip.
"We'll even give pin 'stock-market' reports' Bulgarian bobsleds are now trading for 16 Swiss downhills,' that sort of thing," says Roy Fleming, who is a media-relations manager for Coca-Cola.
Outside, pins will become an unofficial form of currency. At L.A., athletes left pins as tips for their Olympic Village hairdressers. Drivers used them to buy their way into "full" parking lots. Reporters used them to bribe their way into off-limits areas.
Pins have actually been around the Olympics for decades. They evolved from coin-like metal identification badges worn by officials at Games in the early 1900s, to partially enameled pins given to competitors in the 1930s, to today's mass-produced, fully enameled pins. It's refreshing to find that most Olympic athletes still look upon the pins as tokens of friendship rather than high-priced collectibles. "I give most of mine away to kids," says bobsledder Matt Roy of Lake Placid, who nevertheless still has a collection of 200. "If an athlete from another country gives you one of his pins, you always try to give him one of yours—but only as an act of thanks. It isn't a competitive type of trading." Roy does claim one of the world's oddest pins: an Eastern European bobsled pin with a rugged-looking screw-thread fastener instead of a pin clasp.