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Pin trading lures curious Chinese at Olympics

Aug. 15, 2008, 9:56 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Beijing's eyes may be "pinned" on TV broadcasts of basketball, diving and other Olympic sports, but a different kind of event is drawing attention to the city's sidewalks.

Chinese and foreign enthusiasts are heading to trading sites that have sprouted up across the capital in search of the promotional pins that Olympic sponsors, organizing committees and media companies distribute.

The unofficial Olympic "sport," which took off at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, has begun slowly here but appears to be gathering momentum as the Chinese get bitten by the trading bug.

"All the pins are manufactured in China, but no one understood you're supposed to trade them," said American Mitch Telson, 65, a veteran collector and trader. "My prediction is by the end of the games it'll be a frenzy."

So far, almost all hard-core collectors are foreigners. Several sat in a row across the sidewalk from Telson by the Olympics media center, their pins displayed on cardboard and cloth squares by their feet.

Chinese spectators hesitantly stepped forward to examine their wares.

"They may not have a strong idea of how to do it yet," said Li Ruiqi, a publishing house employee from Beijing who began collecting two years ago.

"I buy pins myself and then trade them with foreigners," she said, opening her bag to display her collection. "I like the ones with Chinese themes, that embody Chinese culture. I trade the pins I don't like."

The monetary value of most pins is low. Most are distributed for free or retail for just a few dollars, although the Coca-Cola Company was selling one new limited set for $200.

During the Olympics, prices can skyrocket for sought-after pins before dropping after the games end. But rare ones can command good prices years later on e-Bay or traders' Web sites.

"This is my seventh Olympics," Telson said as Chinese pin traders waited in line to have their pictures taken standing beside him. Pins of all colors were affixed to his vest, and he carried more in his bulging pockets and two small packs.

"I don't go to any events," Telson said. "What is most enjoyable for me is meeting people ... especially natives."

Telson, a retired retail consultant from Santa Barbara, Calif., began collecting pins at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His collection now numbers over 15,000.

"I make friends," Telson said. "Sometimes I can remember the story of who I traded with."

Beijing lacks the central venue for pin trading that previous Olympics have provided. As a major games sponsor, Coca-Cola helped start the pin-trading trend at Calgary, and in Beijing has provided tents at three different officially approved sites.

But several unofficial trading sites have also sprung up in the city.

"We trade pins in the subway," said Beijing visitor Jacquelin Kronick, 11, standing on the sidewalk near one of the official tents with her collection of pins swinging from an oversized tie.

Beijing's most popular pins include logos from sponsors like CCTV and Kodak, along with one that has a pop-out image of Beijing's National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. NBC has a camera-shaped pin that lights up, and a Samsung pin features a cell phone that slides open.

Chinese traders tend toward pins depicting dragons, including a set that places Beijing's five Olympic mascots against a dragon in the background.

There's also what some traders call "the smog pin" - a silver square reading "Welcome to Beijing" that becomes difficult to read when tilted at an angle, as if the capital's well-known pollution were clouding its text.