ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - The gold, silver and bronze medals in Sochi are not the only glittering prizes on offer. For avid collectors, pins specially made for each Games offer a great opportunity to meet, trade and build bridges between cultures.
The pins coveted by collectors are sold in retail outlets, produced by sponsors and media organizations, or offered by the national teams - the most sought-after of the small badges.
“They’re usually the hardest to get,” says Mark Chestnut, who has traveled to Sochi from his home in Wisconsin to watch the Games and trade pins with other enthusiasts.
“You have to find an athlete from that country or a team representative. I think there’s over 80 countries represented here and some only have one or two athletes, so trying to get those pins is quite a monumental task,” he told Reuters.
Chestnut began collecting pins in 1988 and estimates he now has close to 5,000. In Sochi he carries a cloth folder with dozens of swaps and duplicates, always ready to trade.
“I started collecting Olympic pins by writing companies and saying, ‘Hey, send me your annual report - but by the way, I like the Olympics, could you send me an Olympic pin?'”
“Back in 1988 everyone sent them out, but now they’re much harder to obtain,” Chestnut said.
Since then, he has traveled to 10 Games, winter and summer, using air miles collected in his job as a technical instructor to help fund his passion. Passing on the tradition, his son Jack has joined him in Sochi for his second Olympics.
Asked what he finds so absorbing about his hobby, the 49-year-old sports fanatic, who holds season tickets for the Green Bay Packers and the Milwaukee Brewers, smiles.
”I like the way they look. I don’t put values on them. It’s the memories that are important, what they represent, learning about different cultures and making connections.
“I think they help bridge a lot of our political gaps,” he says as an Olympic volunteer arrives at his shoulder looking to trade.
Chestnut is part of a group of enthusiasts who got together in Lake Placid in 1980, and it now has about 400 members. They meet annually and gather in every Olympic host city to compare collections and trade.
Like many sports memorabilia collectors, Chestnut doesn’t limit himself to pins.
“I started doing this in 1988 and it leads you down some unusual paths. I have four participants’ medals, one going back to the Swiss in 1928, one from Sydney. I have 30 watches, books, all kinds of stuff,” he says.
He is loath to pick a favorite from his collection but eventually plumps for an IBM pin from the 1964 Tokyo Games. “It’s a very tiny pin and unless you knew what you were looking for you’d overlook it completely.”
But his biggest emotional attachment is to a piece of Winter Olympic history.
“I have in my collection right now an Olympic torch from Torino, which was given to me as a gift for Christmas and I started to cry. It was the first time my daughter had ever seen me cry.”
Reporting By Philip O'Connor, editing by Robert Woodward