JUNG YEON-JE  /  AFP/Getty Images
A Chinese woman displays her collection of pins.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/16/2008 7:32:36 AM ET 2008-08-16T11:32:36

This is an ongoing series of Olympics cultural reports Sunny Wu is filing from Beijing. Check back twice a day for 'The Buzz' and 'Nightlife.'

Michel Benamov was sitting in the middle of the storm, a paragon of cool and calm as a flurry of action swirled around him. The Frenchman, a pin collector from Cannes, had set up shop at the Olympic Expo at the Beijing Exhibition Center. His pins, displayed on color-coded pages, were laid out on the table.

Other pin collectors, and the curious (like myself), were fixated by his pins, some simply staring at pins from previous Olympics while others tried to barter, exchange and trade.

"This one for two of yours?" asked one man.

Benamov, an Olympic pin collector since the 1984 games in Los Angeles, quickly dismissed the man. "No, no," he said. "One [pin] for one [pin]." The man left in a huff.

I was getting a crash course in Olympic pin collecting Saturday afternoon. All around Benamov, people were swapping, exchanging and bartering Olympic pins. The expo, the official site for pin exchanging, was a beehive of activity and energy.

I had a mission Saturday morning. I started the day with 10 pins — five NBC News pins, one Today Show pin and others I had acquired the previous few days — and my goal was to use my keen negotiation skills to get more pins.

First, I had to learn from one of the masters. Here's what I learned from the affable Benamov.

The best pins are the ones from each country's Olympic committee. Only athletes and officials are given those. The smaller the country, the better (so U.S. pins aren't as coveted).

"Those aren't beautiful, but they're hard to get," Benamov said.

The next most desired are advertising pins, like Coca-Cola, Budweiser and McDonald's (I caught Benamov eyeing my Bud pin). The least attractive are ones you can find anywhere, ones that are labeled "special edition" but aren't that special. Those pins are the ones sponsors hand out like Halloween candy.

I asked Benamov why he was such an avid pin collector. Was he selling the pins to make a profit?

"No, no, no," he said. "For me it's not about the money. It's for fun. I'm not going to sell any. It's all about making new friends."

So now I was ready to hit the tables, eager to swap my NBC pins for more unique ones and expand my collection. Benamov graded my 10 pins, saying my NBC pins — especially the Today Show one — were quite valuable. Realizing that I should follow the one-to-one rule, I traded one NBC News pin for a pin from the 16th Winter Games in Albertville, France. I made my first deal and, like a budding Trump, I was read to make another.

I walked to the next table, where Gary Wintraub of Calgary, Alberta, was trading pins like he was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. What else would you expect from a man who calls himself "The Pinman"?

"Let's make a deal, come on, let's make some trades," Wintraub said, his eyes widening once he saw my NBC pins. He was taking pins off my lanyard before I could even say a word. Pin collecting wasn't a hobby, it was an obsession for the Canadian, who says he owns about 40,000 to 50,000 pins. He stopped counting years ago.

"I've traded pins for everything: shirts, hats, drinks, sandwiches," he said. "Don't ask what else."

In need of more pins, I swapped two NBC News pins for four pins. He gave me an extra one — an ESPN pin, obviously a throwaway — to entice me to return with more NBC schwag. Was he going to turn around and sell them?

"I could sell [pins] for a couple hundred bucks," he said. "But I spent thousands to come here. That's not what it's about."

Trolling for more pins, I noticed that someone from Missouri's journalism school had commissioned pins and was swapping them. I saw three at the expo. And some unsuspecting Chinese woman had a Sonics pin on her shirt. If only she knew. Among the other pins I saw: Kansas Jayhawks basketball and pins from nearly every NBA team.

After an hour at the expo, I had expanded and diversified my collection. I was thinking like a collector, protecting the pins I liked while aggressively seeking the ones I wanted. I traded two pins for a U.S. Virgins Islands pin from the 2002 Winter Olympics. I stood firm when a collector wanted more for his Salt Lake City pin. I won.

Slideshow: Emotional moments "It's the unofficial sport of the Olympics Games," said Pam Richardson of Australia. Richardson, a pin hobbyist for 15 years, said collecting is her "passion."

"It costs a lot of money to get started," she said. "You have to have a passion for it. It's all about the passion."

And I had caught some of the pin fever. After an hour of hustling and negotiating, I now had 15 pins, a 50 percent increase from the morning. Not bad, if I say so myself.

"You're starting to enjoy this now, huh?" Wintraub said with a smile.

I was. I left the exhibition center and made my way back to the Olympic Green. A volunteer spotted my pins and wanted my Today Show pin. All she was offering was a promotional pin from Panasonic.

No way.

This nascent pin collector wasn't going to get fooled.

Sunny Wu will be writing for msnbc.com throughout the Beijing Olympics. He can be reached at sunny.k.wu@gmail.com. You can follow more of his exploits at http://meiguoren.wordpress.com/.


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