When pins were in: Revisiting the 2002 Olympic craze

Feb 14 2012 - 7:16am

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OGDEN -- In 2002, "pin shows," where dealers sold commemorative Winter Olympic Games pins, littered Utah's landscape.

Dealers didn't need a formal setting. It was not unusual to have a stranger approach on the sidewalk and offer rare pins, exclusive pins, pins nobody else had that would, they assured, be worth a fortune someday!

Most people bought a few. Some blew the rent. They piled up the shiny enameled baubles, each enticingly labeled "limited edition." Guaranteed rare!

What are all those pins worth now?

Nothing.

OK, if you can find someone who honestly needs a pin you have, to fill a hole in their collection, you might get $5 or $10 for it. If someone is desperate for your Green Jell-O with marshmallow bits, you might end up with $20.

But you might not.

Most likely, marketing the things will be more hassle than the result. Ditto your 2002 Olympics coats, Roots berets, boots, sweaters, blankets, dishes, books, crystal paperweights, pens, pencils, key rings and everything else embellished with the iconic five rings and palindromic "2002."

2002 gear is seen regularly at local thrift stores. EBay lists hundreds of 2002 pins for about $5 each. Few draw bids.

Consider those pins, which sold from $7.50 to $15 each. Special editions, larger pins and sets of pins that fit together like a puzzle cost more.

Mike Stewart, of Kearns, runs a website called "Pin Fever." He has no 2002 pins for sale because he gives them to children starting the hobby.

Stewart laughs at the idea of getting rich on any pins, although in 2002 he saw many people who hoped they would.

"I had a few customers who were dumping their life savings, and I said, 'This is not an investment.' Some listened, and some didn't.

"I had one customer who inherited I don't know how many thousands from her aunt. She would come to our shows and spend hundreds of dollars. Some people were bound and determined to collect every pin ever made," he said.

"You better hope it has sentimental value, because you're sure not going to get rich."

Souvenir pins were made for Olympic teams and game sponsors beginning in the 1950s. There was always a brisk market in trading them, but pin mania took off in Atlanta in 1996.

More than 7,000 individual pin designs were produced for the Olympics held in Atlanta, Stewart said, while Aminco, the official pin producer of the games, made around 4,200 individual designs for the Salt Lake City Olympics.

Salt Lake was the first time individuals could come up with a design, get it approved as "official" and sell it.

There was a flurry of Utah-centric pins, like the green Jell-O pin, the fry sauce pin, the pin with two Mormon missionaries on bicycles, the security gate pin and so on.

Richard Milner, who works at Planet Rainbow at the mouth of Ogden Canyon, said the store still gets tourists who want the pin the store produced commemorating the Mormon Muffin, a treat made at The Greenery restaurant next door.

Those tourists come so often, he said, that the pin retains value because he's willing to buy them back so he can sell them again.

"Every week, we sell something Olympic, and a lot of people come through and they just remember what a good time it was," he said.

During Olympic years, the store sells more, so he expects the 10-year anniversary of Utah's games to spark sales.

Except for the Mormon Muffin pin, best-sellers to tourists are the more generic pins.

Corporate pins don't excite tourists, he said, and gimmick pins, like the fry sauce pin, just puzzle them.

That wasn't the case in 2002.

Cindy Simone, owner of the KoKoMo Lounge in Ogden, admits she got bit bad.

"I just remember walking out of Planet Rainbow going, 'What have I done?' because I would go in there it seemed like three weeks straight, on a daily basis, and see what I needed, and they waited on me really good."

She figures she spent $1,000. She collected more pins at the bar from athletes, visiting police and partiers.

Not just pins.

"I do have one of those berets," she said, referring to the Roots berets that became desirable when the American team wore them during the opening ceremonies.

"I had to drive to Park City and pay $20 for it," she said. "I was going to sell it -- I was going to make some money with it, make some house payments."

She still has it, still in plastic wrap. Like the pins, she keeps it all in a box.

Are they worth a fortune?

To her, yes.

"I've got something somebody else doesn't have," she said, "and, at the time, I couldn't afford to go to the Olympics. I've got something maybe my grandkids will like to have."

J. Scott Handy, of Ogden, was in a unique position in 2002 because he was a senior account executive for Office Depot, a major corporate sponsor of the games.

"It was right after 9/11. We had, I don't know how many, hundreds and thousands of dollars in tickets, and people we were going to give those to, (but) they didn't want to come to Salt Lake City because of the security factor."

So there he was, with tickets to all the events and, literally, bushels of company pins.

He gave tickets to family, friends and business associates. He went to all the events: opening and closing ceremonies, women's ice skating finals, you name it.

He went nuts trading Office Depot pins.

"I've got all the green Jell-O pins, the missionary pins, the Mitt Romney pin that says 'Mitt happens,' " a reference to when Romney allegedly swore at a volunteer near Snowbasin after getting caught in a traffic jam.

Handy said he could up the ante in any trade because he had bags full of Office Depot pins.

"I'd say, 'I'll trade you a pin,' and they'd say, 'I don't know,' and hesitate, so I'd say, 'How about 50 of them?' "

What did he get in return?

"I've got lots of good memories, and it was such a wonderful time of our lives. And I got all the tickets for free."

And if you want one Office Depot 2002 pin, or 20 of them, he can fix you up.

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