CNN  — 

When Shlomi Tsafrir moved to Nagano, Japan, in 1994, he had no idea the Olympic Games were going to change his life.

Three years later, outside Nagano station, he bumped into two Americans looking for a place to sell Olympic pins ahead of the Nagano Winter Games. Tsafrir showed them around, and they gave him a bag of 100 pins in return, instructing him on how to trade and sell them.

“They told me, ‘Forget what you’re doing, forget whatever job you do – this is your future,’” recalled Tsafrir, who is originally from Israel.

Although he thought they were “crazy” at the time, he opened a pin shop 24 hours before the 1998 Nagano Games began. More than two decades later, Tsafrir has entire rooms filled with boxes of framed pins, estimating that he has over 100,000 pieces of Olympic memorabilia. Collecting and selling them is now his full-time job – one which sees him scouring overseas auction houses and even designing pins for Olympic delegations.

Shlomi Tsafrir (far left) pictured trading pins at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Dressed in a black vest covered in pins, and a shirt from the 2004 Athens Games, he showed CNN some of his vast collection. It includes a badge once owned by Japan’s imperial family, and another that he believes belonged to Kano Jigoro, a legendary athlete he calls the “father of judo.”

“Almost every drawer, every cupboard you open in this house, something Olympic will pop up,” Tsafrir said.

The Games are usually a flurry of trading activity, as collectors flock to trading zones and congregate outside venues. Between 5,000 and 6,000 new designs come to market at every Olympics, with special pins added for individual athletes, sponsors and media organizations, among others.

But Tsafrir is one of the many pin traders left disappointed this year, as the pandemic has damaged his chances of making sales and collecting new designs. With virtually all spectators banned, there are few opportunities to make in-person trades, according to Masayuki Tanaka, a Nagano restaurant owner and pin trader.

A man in Tokyo holds up US-themed pin.

“The Tokyo Olympics are over when it comes to pins,” he said prior to the opening ceremony. “That is how it feels. I feel very sad that I am not able to see new or wonderful pins.”

According to International Olympics Committee’s official magazine, an estimated 65,000 pins have been designed across the Games’ history. The rarest ones can go tens of thousands of dollars at auction.

The most sought-after designs include pins from canceled Olympic games and those created for US presidents or Japanese politicians. Others that appeal to collectors often have memorable back stories, like Coca-Cola’s 2007 Olympic pins, which were made using leftover steel from the construction of China’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium.

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Meet the man with one of the rarest Olympic pin collections in the world
02:45 - Source: CNN

Evolving through the decades

The origins of the Olympic pins can be traced back to the first modern Games in Athens in 1896, where delegations wore official cardboard badges.

“Olympic pins started as a way to identify athletes, judges and officials,” said Timo Lumme, managing director of the IOC’s TV and marketing arm, in a press release announcing this year’s new pins. “But over the past 125 years it has become an Olympic Games tradition, where everyone from athletes to event staff, journalists and spectators all take part to collect and trade pins in the Olympic Village and beyond.”

Athletes and officials soon moved from cardboard to sleeker enamel pins, and the merchandise became a way for Olympic committees to cover some of their costs. Germany sold nearly 1 million pins to help fund its 1936 Summer and Winter Olympic Games. At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, a local company produced and sold 18 million pins – a figure more than three times the population of host country Norway – with the organizing committee pocketing $18 million in royalties, according to the IOC’s magazine.

Pin fever had boomed in the 1980s, with traders flocking to the Lake Placid and Moscow Olympic Games and sponsors like Anheuser-Busch and Coca Cola launching official pin trading centers.

An Olympic pin collector waits to exchange pins with other collectors near the Tokyo's Olympic Stadium on July 29, 2021.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the latest designs feature newly introduced sports and Tokyo mascot Miraitowa. There is even a “heritage” range celebrating the city’s last Olympics in 1964, including an agate one on sale for almost 64,000 yen ($584).

And with traders unable to attend this year’s Games, Olympic organizers are keeping the tradition alive online by selling pins as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens.

The newly released virtual pins include mascot-inspired designs and digitally animated posters from previous Olympics, such as the 1924 Chamonix Games (the first ever Winter Olympics) and the 1912 Stockholm Games. Tsafrir is among the collectors investing in the NFT pins, which he described as a “pretty genius” idea, though it’s a far cry from the pin trading furor of previous Games.

For Tsafrir and Tanaka, pins are more than just an investment or hobby – they’re a way to connect with people. Tsafrir said most of his friends are fellow pin collectors, and he speaks weekly with one of the Americans who gave him his first batch back in the 1990s, a Florida-based Vietnam War veteran.

A collector shows her Olympic pins during Beijing's Olympic Pin Culture Week, part of the city's preparations for hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Tanaka, meanwhile, hosts a monthly meeting for pin traders at his restaurant, Winds (or “the sanctuary of pins of Nagano,” as he described it). He has even developed close friendships with pin-loving IBM bosses, he said, who send him branded Olympic pins from their travels.

“Even though I cannot speak English, I can communicate through pins,” Tanaka said.

“Each pin has a story. I remember where I met (each collector) and what I received,” he added. “No matter how many years have passed, I want to meet with people who gave me pins again. It’s (a form of) memorial and communication.”