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Going for the Gold
by Bob Brooke


While millions of people from all over the world watch the Parade of Nations into the Olympic Stadium in order to see their country's representatives, just as many collectors eagerly await the flood of Olympic collectibles that will be made available once the games have begun.

When the Olympics role around, many people think of pins. But true collectors look for all the other memorabilia produced by the games. This involves everything that has to do with the games, from press passes to Olympic torches.

But the items collectors seek most are those used by the athletes, judges, and coaches, as well as those that bear an athlete’s likeness.

Many consider Olympic pins to be the low-end items in the realm of Olympic collectibles. The premier items are the torches carried from Athens, Greece, to the destination of the Olympics that year and everywhere in between. Originally a runner with a torch ran around the country of Greece to announce the Olympic games were soon going to take place. The torch runner was sort of a town crier.

The first torch run of the modern games took place in Germany in 1936 when the games were held in Berlin. The first Olympic flame had been lit in 1928 in Amsterdam, but prior to 1936 there had never been a relay of runners who brought the flame directly from Greece to that year's Olympic Games site.

While there have always been multiple torches used during this run, Olympic torches are hard to find, especially if a collector is trying to acquire one of only three torches used at the Oslo Games, for example. One Oslo torch sold for $27,000. More recent games, like the ones in Atlanta in 1996, produce thousands of torches. Even so, a torch from the Atlanta Games sells for about $2,500.

So what else is there to collect from the Olympic Games? Medals. Unfortunately, athletes do sell their medals, especially those from Eastern European countries. Most of the time they do so to raise money because many don’t go on to sports fame and fortune sponsoring products.

After watching an athlete struggle to win a gold medal, it’s hard to believe that they would part with it. Take U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens. Regardless that he made Adloph Hitler lose face at the 1926 Berlin Olympics by garnering the gold, Owens was never able to cash in on his triumph once back in the states. He actually ended up working as a janitor for the Cleveland Public Schools and was so strapped for money that he did indeed sell his Olympic medals in order to make ends meet.

Besides the medals athletes actually win, every athlete who participates in an Olympic Games receives a participation medal. If an athlete is fortunate enough to place first through sixth in an event, he or she also receives a winner's certificate. These types of items are collectible as are programs, tickets, beer steins and souvenir figurines.

Olympic badges are another hot item. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave badges to athletes and officials until 1972. These badges admitted them into various Olympic venues, like the Olympic village or into sports arenas. The badges are very militaristic looking. Each shows which sport an athlete or official participated in. Members of the media also received badges to admit them to whatever sports competition they were covering. A badge given to media to cover the first winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924, for example, sold for $5,000. Typically, media badges, depending on which Olympics they’re for, can sell for anywhere from $100 to $500.

Some collectors seek official Olympic reports, which tell how well the games were run, the attendance at each event, what went wrong, and such, published after the completion of the games. Other collectible items include architectural plans for the stadiums and Olympic posters promoting the events, such as the Art Deco ones from the 1920s, which can sell for $2,000 to $5,000. The same goes for banners, flags, and stuffed mascots.

Some Olympic Games produced items that are more desirable than others. The 1904 Games, held in St. Louis in conjunction with the World's Fair, had the lowest number of participating athletes, most of which were from the U.S. The fair was the primary event, eclipsing the Games, so not many other countries sent athletes. Needless to say, there are very few items around from this event.

The next Olympics, held in 1906, as a sort of interim event, that was put on in order to restore interest in the Olympic Games. While this 1906 event wasn’t officially recognized by the IOC as having been a true Olympics, items from it are still sought by collectors.

And while Olympic pins may not have the pinache of other items, collecting them is easy because so many are available. Collecting pins has grown tremendously since the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Since then, collectors’ clubs and newsletters have sprung up all over the country.

The value of an item really depends on the athlete associated with it, whether he or she used it or their likeness is on it. Prices of participation medals, for instance, can range from $150 to $19,000.

With Olympic collectibles, the range is so wide that anyone on any budget can afford to start a collection. It all began with the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, the first held in the modern era, and a menu from the IOC dinner. Olympic stamps, issued to help raise money to balance the budget for those games, also appeared. Both of these items started people collecting Olympic memorabilia, something that has continued to the present day.

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