When it comes to the Olympics, it’s natural to think first and foremost of the coveted bronze, silver, and gold medals. But the Games’ famous awards are not the only important identifiers at the event – other elements have taken on an interesting life of their own over the years. One has even blossomed into a “sport” all of its own, and it’s open to everyone.
Pin badges originated at the Olympic Games with the purpose of being an identification credential – to note whether the holder was an athlete, official, press member, or other dignitary. These badges formed the perfect memorabilia of each event, and soon, a whole culture of pin collecting was born.
As the year-late Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are finally upon us, we explore the history of the Olympic pin badge and what it means to fans today.
Evolution of the Olympic badge
The first pin that represented a country’s colours appeared at the 1906 Intermediate Olympic Games of Athens through Sweden and France and continued in the years to come, with many more countries following suit.
Around 1924, the athletes started exchanging their badges as a sign of international friendship. From there, the tradition of pin trading began, as did the evolution of the pin into what we know today.
Up until the late 1970s, pin trading was primarily restricted to athletes and officials, but as security and safety became a more serious concern and as the Games grew, these decorative metal badges were phased out in favour of badges which would be harder to copy or steal. These took the form of plastic lanyard-held identification cards. The Montreal Olympics in 1976 were the last Games at which the original collectable metal badges were distributed.
But the removal of metal badges wasn’t the end of the pin-trading culture at the Olympics. Trading of Olympic pin badges was officially opened to the masses at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. Spectators were allowed to purchase badges as part of the official merchandise start their own collections.
The phenomenon really exploded in 1984 at the Summer Games in Los Angeles when, for the very first time, sponsor Budweiser set up a tent for badge collectors to meet up and exchange pins.
Taking a leaf out of Budweiser’s book, Coca Cola, another major Olympics sponsor, set up the International Pin Trading Centre at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, and has since gone on to be one of the huge successes of the Olympic Games, attracting visitors in their masses for years since.
Avid Olympic pin badge collector Matthew Hotos, who was a licensing manager for the Athens Organising Committee for the Olympic Games in 2004, said: “When I was a licensing manager in Athens, I got the pin bug, as my department was responsible for approving all pin designs with our licensee. During the Athens Games, everyone wanted a pin from the birthplace of the Olympics, so all pins became collectables.
“My most treasured ones are a mix of Athens 2004 National Olympic Committee (NOC) and media pins but also some Olympic Village-exclusive pins that were only available at the Olympic Village.”
Hotos says the lack of fans at Tokyo 2020 has really hindered pin exchange for the delayed Olympics. He added: “The impact was enormous, basically trading is non-existent. COVID restrictions, social distancing, the ban on sponsors to have kiosks and events to give out pins and other promotional material, all resulted in this.
“To collect pins, they must be distributed via different channels, sponsors, NOC’s, [and] media. These pins are circulated from volunteers, staff, athletes, general public, and of course, the Coca-Cola Pin Trading Centre.
“There is an unofficial rule [at Tokyo 2020]: don’t trade pins during these Games to avoid contact. It’s been very challenging, as whatever pins are available are not accessible. Collectors have been trying to find other “sources” to find pins, but this is a temporary situation. When and if things become somewhat normal, face-to-face pin trading will resume, as it’s not just about the trading but meeting people and connecting through the transaction.”
Normally, we have a two-year wait between Summer and Winter Olympic Games, but following Tokyo 2020’s 12-month delay, fans of Olympic pin collection will only have to wait until February 2022 to get their next taste of action.
The Beijing 2022 pin trading centre was launched early in July 2021. It will see weekly exchange activities organised prior to the Games as well as every day during competition time.
We all hope the fans will return to the Beijing Games where the world of pin badge collection and physical meetups can spring back to life.