BEIJING Pin collectors from around the world are gathering at Olympic venues to haggle and trade -- and hopefully get their hands on the mother of all pins at Beijing.
Known as the official spectator sport, pin collecting has become a huge event with thousands of people trading the 5,000 plus pins made each Games, with usually one pin becoming elusive.
The choice is overwhelming. Each country makes pins for its athletes, there are media pins, sponsor pins, and licensed pins made by the country hosting the Games that are sold in souvenir shops.
Don Bigsby, a well-known Olympic collector with over 20,000 pins, said usually one pin becomes a hot item at each Games and its value can soar -- at least while the Games is on.
At Beijing he suspects pins from the three debutante countries -- Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Montenegro -- could be in demand but cautions that profits are unlikely.
"You do usually get one pin that everyone wants and it has nothing to do with the cost of the pin but something that catches people's eye," said Bigsby, who founded the largest pin club, Olympin Collector's Club (www.olympinclub.com), in 1982.
"These new countries might not be aware of the extent of pin collecting and only give their athletes a few pins. If that is the case, everyone will be after them."
But Bigsby warned novice collectors not to get caught up in the frenzy and shell out large amounts of money for pins.
"People get carried away in the Olympics and they want their collections to be special, but the collections often end up being worth way, way less than they paid," Bigsby, 67, a retired engineer from Schenectady, New York, told Reuters.
"It's not a hobby to make money. Have fun and meet people."
Pin trading is believed to date back to the first modern Games at Athens in 1896 when athletes and officials were given cardboard discs to identify themselves which they then traded with each other.
It was not until the 1912 Games in Stockholm that souvenir pins and official Olympic Games pins were produced to sell to spectators with the term "pin" rather than badge applied.
But collectors say the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid was a pivotal juncture as the village was so small that everyone congregated on the main street which was closed to traffic and ideal for pin trading.
At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the first Olympic pin collector's guide was published and pin clubs started to be set up all over the world -- and the first copies started to appear.
Richard Jackson, who began pin collecting before the Atlanta Games in 1996 and runs website wwww.pindemonium.com, said common pins might sell for $5-$10 but if a pin became popular and was in short supply it could go for $100 plus -- attracting pin pirates.
He said it was impossible to say which pin would become hot.
At Atlanta, for example, a local drive-in restaurant made a pin featuring five onion rings looking like the Olympic rings but the Atlanta Organizing Committee told the restaurant to destroy them. However a few got out and were highly sought after.
At the Sydney Olympics in 2000 some Coca Cola pins became hot as the company made some limited edition pins while at Athens in 2004 the Iraqi national pin was hard to find and became coveted.
"Like anything there are people that try to take advantage and you really need to be careful," Jackson told Reuters.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)
(For more stories visit our multimedia website "Road to Beijing" here; and see our blog at blogs.reuters.com/china)