Every two years, fans of the summer and winter Olympic Games have the opportunity to collect new pins and participation medals produced for the world’s premier international sporting events. The Olympic pin tradition began with small cardboard badges worn by athletes and officials at the first modern Olympics in 1896; trading these emblems was an early gesture of goodwill between competing nationalities. At the 1908 games in Paris, different pin styles designated specific groups like media professionals or judges. Finally, the first souvenir pins were produced for spectators to purchase at the 1912 Stockholm games. Among the rarest of Olympic pins are those made for the 1940 games, which were cancelled because of World War II.
The first sponsorship pin was designed by Sylvania Electric Products, Inc., for the 1960 winter games in Squaw Valley. In 1968, the Mexico City games featured the first butterfly-clutch pin fastener, which has become the standard of Olympic pins today. However, the pin-trading tradition wasn’t firmly established until the 1980s, when sponsoring companies like Hard Rock Cafe and Coca-Cola marketed their own pins and set up official trading stations. Because the pins are small, affordable, and offer endless variety, their popularity quickly ballooned among Olympic fans, with around 17 million made for the 1984 Los Angeles games.
Pins are generally manufactured in limited numbered editions, and those with the smallest quantities or from the earliest games are typically most desirable. These also include “bid-city” pins issued by the various cities competing for a chance to host the Olympics. Pins which are made with production flaws also draw high bids.
In contrast to pins, all participation medals are, by definition, official. Although they are far easier to come by than the medals awarded to victorious athletes, participation medals are also highly desirable. At the first modern Olympics in 1896, bronze medals designed by sculptor Godefroid Devreese were distributed to all participants, while first place winners were given silver medals and second-place finishers received copper ones. Devreese’s design featured an image of the goddess Nike holding a laurel crown, the symbol of victory used at ancient games, as well as a phoenix rising from ashes, representing the rebirth of the ceremonial games.
With the exception of the Paris Olympic games of 1900, participation medals have been produced for all following Olympics, with the total mintage for each design ranging from 700 to 60,000 medals. Gold, silver, and bronze medals became standard at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, while the famous interlocking Olympic rings first appeared on medals at the 1928 winter games in St. Moritz. Today it is the host country’s obligation to produce and distribute participation medals, while each design’s copyright is owned by the International Olympic Committee.