On our way to the Olympic athletes’ village we came across Don Bigsby and his huge collection of Olympic pins spread out on cloths and balanced on various metal barriers and bollards. But what on earth is an Olympic pin? And why do people cross the earth to swap them? Well, the small badges feature the symbols of the different national teams, host city, sponsor or media outlet. Hundreds of thousands of them seem to surface at each Games and the vast majority are given away by athletes, reporters and a small group of hardcore collectors. Pin-swapping is one of the earliest Olympic traditions (it’s believed to date back to the first modern Games at Athens in 1896) and collecting them can become an obsession. We asked Don, a retired engineer who lives in Schenectady, New York to tell us more.
How long have you been collecting pins?
“This is my 14th Olympics where I’ve come to swap pins. I did collect before that but not seriously. I co-founded The Olympin Collectors Club, which is now the largest pin club in the world in 1982, after the Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, USA. It has around 600 members world wide.”
How many pins do you have?
“Over 20,000 pins.”
Which ones are your favourites?
“I like the smaller countries, the ones that you don’t normally get to hear much about. For example, I just swapped one of my pins with an athlete from Burundi. We had a wonderful discussion about Burundi and how small the world is. You find out so much about other people and places.”
How do you swap them?
“I stand here and hand them out to athletes and anyone else who might be able to swap a pin back. I’ve got pins here from the last 14 Games, and athletes from different countries pick up ones they don’t have already, and I exchange pins with athletes from countries I might not have swapped with before. It’s a great way to talk to people. We are part of one big family.”
Why do you do it?
“It’s exciting meeting the athletes and talking to them about their countries. There are wonderful moments. We had the Iranian athletes and myself all together recently swapping pins. We were all laughing together and slapping each others’ backs. You have to be careful sometimes though. I recently made a mistake and gave the North Koreans a pin from the US and they got a bit upset.” Rebecca Taylor
Find out more about the Olympics.