In 1964, 12-year-old Ken Rudy sat transfixed in front of his television as U.S. runner Billy Mills bested Australia’s world-record holder Ron Clarke for the gold in the 10,000-meter race at the Tokyo Olympics.
“That was it,” Rudy recalled. “I was hooked.”
His fascination with the Olympics spawned a collection of between 10,000 and 11,000 Olympic lapel pins. Most of his collection is displayed in wooden boxes with black velvet lining that cover the walls in a room in his Millwood home.
“I ran out of wall space,” he said. “I don’t have any duplicates – I use those for trading. I buy 20% of my pins, the rest I get through trade or exchange.”
The pins began as part of official identification for athletes, volunteers and organizing committees, and usually featured the Olympic emblem or a marker of where the competition took place. By 1912 athletes started trading them as a gesture of friendship and goodwill and collecting was made available for spectators. But wasn’t until the early ’80s that the collecting craze took off.
Rudy and a friend attended the ’84 games in Los Angeles, but it was the following Olympics that jump-started his collection.
“I really got into it at the ’88 games in Calgary,” said Rudy. “I think the first pin I got was a media pin.”
Media outlets like NBC, BBC, Reuters and Sports Illustrated give their representatives pins to trade just like the athletes.
Rudy pointed to one in his 2012 collection.
“KING 5 from Seattle, sent a guy to London and made him his own pin,” he said. “That was a hard one to get.”
In addition to country and media pins, there are mascot, venue, sponsor and even security pins. Yes, the FBI has its own Olympic pin set.
Though he’s attended three Olympics, the last one in ’96, Rudy built his collection mainly through two online groups.
“I’ve never had access to the Olympic Village, but I have friends that did,” he explained. “And there’s a yearly convention sponsored by a group called ‘Olympins.’ ”
A lot of the trading action happens in the Village, but it also happens in the stands. When Rudy attended the games, he always wore a hat or a vest covered in lapel pins, so like-minded collectors could spot him.
“There are two types of collections–representative and comprehensive,” Rudy said. “With my representative collections, I have 20%-35% of what’s available.”
He pointed to four boxes containing his 2008 Beijing collection.
“This is a comprehensive collection – I have all of the pins for every sport.”
Despite running out of wall space, he’s still collecting. His collections are organized by year and the pins are arranged alphabetically by country.
“I leave a hole where I’m missing one,” he said. “I’m still looking for pins from 20 years ago.”
Rudy finds items from smaller island nations like Haiti and Barbados most interesting.
“Some countries like Sweden have the same design every year, but the island countries change them.”
For example, the Antigua/Barbados pin for the 2020 Tokyo games (moved to 2021 because of COVID) features a brightly colored Koi.
Hardest to find are pins from countries like North Korea because they don’t let their athletes mingle with others – and tiny island countries like Vanuatu.
“They only send one or two athletes,” Rudy said. “You’d have to be very lucky to find one.”
By contrast, he said the U.S. will often send 700-800 athletes to the summer games.
While most Olympic pins sell for about $40, Rudy’s most valuable item is worth seven times that.
“It’s from Kiribati Island and extremely rare,” he said.
What he most enjoys about his collection is the artistry on these tiny pieces of Olympic history.
“It’s like collecting little pieces of art,” Rudy said. “Some of the designs are amazing!”
He quickly pointed to his favorite–a delicate snowflake frosted in gold from Great Britain’s 2010 team.
To him, his collection represents a celebration of how the Olympics bring people across the globe together.
“People joke about how pin collecting is the unofficial sport of the Olympics,” said Rudy. “I have friends from all over the world because of this.”
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