By Bill Douglas, McClatchy Foreign Staff
SOCHI, Russia — Dan Bakker figures he’s set a record by attending 17 Olympic games — winter and summer — without seeing a single sporting event.
The Branson, Mo., resident says he’s too busy collecting and trading pins during the games to watch the games. For Bakker and others devotees, acquiring and swapping pins is an Olympic sport in itself that takes dedication, focus and a keen eye for that ever-elusive rare gem.
“It’s the hunt, and it ain’t easy.” Bakker said as he left his morning shift outside the Sochi Main Press Center for a Thursday afternoon of swapping at Olympic Park. “There’s a lot of haggling going on. Everybody wants to trade up because all pins aren’t created equal.”
And some pins aren’t created enough of to meet demand. Sochi Olympic organizers have been getting an earful from pin collectors who’ve complained of not being able to find official pins at Olympic venues or local stores.
When asked about the shortage, Sochi 2014 spokeswoman Alexandra Kosterina told reporters Wednesday that “I don’t have enough for everyone, sorry, but I brought some just in case.”
She said she didn’t know what caused a delay in getting enough pins to stores and sites but received assurances that the situation is being corrected.
“I asked them to make sure the pins are always there because that’s definitely the most popular artifact of the games,” Kosterina said. “So, yes, we asked them to ensure they are always there.”
At the Olympics, political conventions and other large events, pins often serve as currency of the realm. A coveted pin can grease the skids for hard-to-get event tickets, secure a good table at a restaurant, or serve as a simple goodwill gesture to make a local happy.
Bakker, 63, said one of the hottest pins in Sochi is NBC’s blue Faberge Egg-shaped pin with the network’s peacock logo on it. It’s in such demand that he was able to swap one of his for 20 pins in return. One was selling on eBay Thursday afternoon for $103.00 with 23 bids.
Media pins are generally among the most sought after, he said, but other corporate or Olympic-affiliated pins are good, too.
“Even a store-bought pin, if you can find them, are $10, and you can’t find them,’ he said. “It seems like there’s a much-bigger demand than a supply.”
Bakker said he met and traded pins with Russian Olympics officials during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and asked them what the pin situation in Sochi would be like.
“They saw the pin frenzy — there was a frenzy in Vancouver, there was a frenzy in London,” he said. “There must have been a billion pins for Moscow (1980 Summer Games). There were sheets, and sheets, and sheets. There must have been 10,000 different pins. Why could they make them in 1980 and they can’t make them now?”
Federico Garcia, a pin collector and trader from Madrid, was standing outside the Olympic Village train station Thursday displaying some of the 40,000 pins he’s accumulated since the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona and lamenting what he sees as a paucity of pins in Sochi.
In addition to too few official Sochi pins, some companies seemed to pass on having pins made, a reflection of today’s corporate cost-cutting reality.
“There aren’t that many different ones,” he said. “I also think that the problem is other parts of the Olympics are very far. The Olympic Park is far from the media center and the Olympic Village.”
But that hasn’t deterred Bakker from trying. He stumbled into pin collecting in Lake Placid in 1980. He was poker with an Olympic merchandise wholesaler who wound up owing him money but had little cash.
“So he gave me some Olympic merchandise, including pins,” he said. “I made a deal with a restaurant across from the hockey arena for a little space so I could sell. I was selling pins and people came up and wanted to trade. I didn’t have a lot of money in them, so I’d trade. Then I had a whole bunch of pins left over and people would try to buy the pins I traded for more than the pins I was selling.”
Bakker says he doesn’t think much about traveling thousands of miles to the Olympics and not taking in a sporting event or two.
He does, however, recall passing on tickets in 1980 for what turned out to be the “Miracle on Ice” game in which the U.S. hockey team won an improbable and historic gold medal.
“If I had that ticket stub I probably could retire,” he said.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT