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The art of trading Olympic pins

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In a sea of Russian flags, signs and dedicated hockey fans, Michael Jakob's Team USA windbreaker stood out. He sat in the back row of Shayba Arena Sunday as Russia and Germany skated onto the ice. Both women's hockey teams were about to play their first 2014 Olympic contests.

Germany scored first, and Jakob sat silently celebrating. Born in Germany but now living in Virginia, he was rooting for the visiting team.

Russia scored five minutes into the third period. Four minutes later, Russia scored again. And again. Each time the home team scored, many in the audience jumped up, cheering and slamming thundersticks together. Jakob did not. He continued sitting quietly throughout the entire third period, watching Germany fall behind as the Russians cheered around him.

"It was a good game," Jakob said afterward. "I thought the Germans had it for a while."

It was Jakob's second event in Sochi, but he is no stranger to the Olympic Games. For 30 years, Jakob has flown across the world and attended every Winter Games since 1984. Although he tries to attend events every day, he takes the two-week vacation mainly to trade Olympic pins. In 1980, he saw them featured on television during the Lake Placid Games.

"I flew out to the next Olympics and got my first pin, which was a U.S. team pin," Jakob said. "Out of all the pins I've collected, I will never trade a pin given to me by a team or athlete."

Athletes are only allotted a small number of pins, and Jakob considers those gifts he can't part with. During the second intermission of the women's hockey game, he found his way to the German team and returned with a new pin. Clutching it between his fingers, he observed it with intensity and shoved it into his pocket.

Although his collection contains more than 3,000, he carries with him a five-pound black briefcase of pins he is willing to trade. Walking through Olympic Park, he passed the briefcase from hand to hand.

"It might not be that heavy, but you try carrying this thing around all day," he said.

Each morning at 10, Jakob unloads the pins from his briefcase at Olympic Park and claims his spot among the other pin traders in the Russian Fan House, waiting for visitors to stop.

In the 30 years Jakob has traveled to the Olympics, his wife and kids have never attended. Upon every return home from the Games, his family and friends are waiting to see his new treasures.

This year, he brought along a friend for the first time. James Solberg may live in Michigan, but the two are still close after 20 years of friendship. The two met through working together in the wastewater treatment field.

"I've never been to the Olympics before, and he always comes back with such good stories," Solberg said.

When Jakob returned from the second intermission during the game, he sat down and swiveled around and showed off his new pin to Solberg.

"He has an uncanny eye for pins," Solberg said. "I've noticed in the two days we've been here that he sees a pin and knows that he wants it or knows that he can trade it for something better."

The art of trading pins wasn't always a side sport of the Olympic Games. During the early years, the pins were only given to athletes as a form of identification badge. It wasn't until the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles that pins started being made in bulk for spectators, said trader Janet Grisson, who has been trading for 12 years.

"It's hard to find pins that date before 1984," Grisson said. "You can always tell by the quality. They continually got better throughout the years, but the early ones are more valuable."

Pinman Bill travels the world

Rows upon rows of Olympic pins sit side by side on the banister of the bridge in Adler, their age and design varying. More wares decorate the red scarf of Bill Baker, 65. All are up for trade.

"If I don't have it, I'll trade you for it," Baker said. "There's more memories attached to it than a favorite."

He makes sure to conclude each deal with a handshake.

The Calgary native began trading Olympic pins when the Games came to his hometown in in 1988. Sochi is his 11th Olympic Games, including Los Angeles, Sydney, Beijing and London.

Despite occasional offers of money, Baker only trades pins. While he sometimes scores food, souvenirs or even event tickets for his pins, cash is not acceptable because of the variance of vendor laws across countries. He said he could have his whole collection confiscated if he broke the law.

"It's not worth the chance to find out," he said.

Baker noted he hasn't detected many great spots for pin trading in Sochi so far. He hangs out around official pin centers and the media center.

"I've traded with police in every city," he said. "Then they'll come back two hours later and tell you to shut down and move"

For Baker, the hobby has led to some international friendships and even more world travel opportunities. He's stayed with friends in Sydney he met through trading pins and even traveled to China to celebrate Chinese New Year. He's also hosted other friends traveling in Canada.

Before Baker became a world traveler, he worked at the Canadian postal service, where he stayed for more than 30 years. He also played defensive tackle for several semi-professional football teams before knee injuries ended his career.

He currently works in merchandising with the Calgary Chargers football club and operates a flea-market stand in his spare time on the weekends.

"It's not work because I love football," he said.

As for these Games, he is not devoting all of his time solely to pin trading. Baker said he enjoys hockey and curling and has tickets for a few of these events. He plans to stay for the duration of the Games.

BSU at the Games is a freelance news agency operated by 41 student journalists reporting from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games through an immersive-learning program at Ball State University.

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