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Competition heating up for fans, players at Rio games -- for different kind of medals

“It gets addictive. It’s kind of like that Pokémon [Go] game. When you get a new one, you get excited, and that gets you motivated to find the next one," one pin collector said.

By
Doug G. Ware
A pin collector arranges his goods outside the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 3, 2016. Hobbyists collect pins made by national teams, sponsors and media companies from each Olympic Games -- which are then sought after and traded among scores of fans and athletes. Photo by Richard Ellis/UPI
A pin collector arranges his goods outside the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 3, 2016. Hobbyists collect pins made by national teams, sponsors and media companies from each Olympic Games -- which are then sought after and traded among scores of fans and athletes. Photo by Richard Ellis/UPI | License Photo

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- The competition in Rio de Janeiro is fierce, sometimes mentally taxing, and often the winners are determined by who has the best timing.

But these games aren't athletic -- they're aesthetic.

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As the world's greatest athletes settle victories on the field, in the arenas and in the water, attendees of the Games of the XXXI Summer Olympiad are going after their own medals in the form of small, tin souvenirs -- pins.

The pins are made and distributed by various companies and Olympic sponsors -- and the biggest victories are won in finding the rarest ones. Many are often surprised to learn just how popular that game is at every Olympics. Fans, relatives, media members, Olympic officials and even athletes really get into it.

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"It's the currency of the Games," collector Dan Baker said. "It's more important than money. In fact, you can get in some places with a pin where you probably couldn't get in if you handed them a $20 bill."

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If you think pins didn't exist yet at the very first Olympic Games in Greece, you would be wrong. As it turns out, the first ones (although there were only three) debuted when the modern Olympics did in Athens in 1896.

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The more modern craze of pin trading, though, dates back to the 1980s. And some say it's now the most popular spectator sport at the Olympic games, summer and winter.

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"It gets addictive," Baker said. "It's kind of like that Pokémon [Go] game. When you get a new one, you get excited, and that gets you motivated to find the next one."

Kim Rhode/Twitter
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Hundreds of different pins debut every two years when the games roll around, but there are typically only a few that gain enough popularity among traders to rise to the top of the most wanted list.

In Calgary at the 1988 Winter Games, a top prize was a pin set from oil company Royal Dutch Shell.

Fourteen years later and 800 miles to the south, in Salt Lake City, a green Jell-O pin jiggled traders with excitement.

In northwest Italy in 2006, Coca-Cola struck gold with a popular puzzle pin set. A similar set from Vancouver four years later still commands a high value.

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But perhaps the holy grail of all Olympic pins is a prized "mistake" pin from the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles that featured Sam the Eagle, those games' mascot, by Coca-Cola. What makes that pin so valuable is a bylaw that prohibits Olympic mascots from pitching any sponsor's product -- a provision that resulted in a very limited production. Its current value is about $1,500.

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Official pins issued by individual nations are always among the hottest pins on the market. In fact, for example, a Swiss Olympic Committee pin from the 1992 Barcelona games still commands a nice selling price. One on eBay asked for nearly $300.

A rare pin set made by Atlanta Olympic organizers in 1996 had a selling price online of $10,000 -- and a single pin commemorating USA basketball's first "Dream Team" in 1992, considered by many the greatest hoops team in history, was recently listed for $2,350.

"I try to trade pins with the cute boys if I can find them, to be honest," gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman, 22, said last week. "I just kind of look in the cafeteria. Even Mihai and Laurent, they laugh at me, but they're like, 'If it keeps you a little bit distracted, that's good.' So a little distraction is OK."

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The "Final Five" American gymnast and women's all-around silver medalist even posted a photograph to her Instagram account that showed her wearing a string of pins, like pearls, around her neck with the caption, "Pin trading like its ma day job."

Caroline Wozniacki/Twitter

"One of the things I did at that first Olympics and at previous Olympics is collect pins and I thought, what better way to show thanks than to create your own Olympic pin," Rio bronze medalist shooter Kim Rhode, who even produces her own Olympic Committee-approved pins, said. "So that is what I did."

"I have probably a couple of thousand [pins]," collector Doug Kaplan said at the 2012 London games. "I have beach towels from each Olympics with the logo on them and then I fill it up with my pins from that Games and other Games."

Despite some Olympic pins' stellar monetary value, many collectors in Rio de Janeiro will tell you their main enthusiasm for the "sport" is two-fold -- the thrill of the hunt, and the handsome memory dividends their small trophies will pay off in the years to come.

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"All my walls at home are covered with these beach blankets full of pins," Kaplan said.

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