Okay, I'll admit it. I have never been a fan of Olympic trading pins. Though the little colored trinkets create a bargaining frenzy at every Games, I've always had better things to do than stand around and swap cheap jewelry.
When I walked into the media center and found a plastic baggie full of NEWSWEEK pins in my desk drawer, I stuck one to my ski jacket and tucked a few others into my backpack. I figured I'd hand some out to eager kids who would appreciate this year's design-an upside-down snowboarder. The other pins would probably wind up with my leftovers from Nagano: gathering dust at the bottom of my box of winter clothes. But that was before I began my quest for the fable green Jell-O pin.
Ever since there have been Winter Games, there have been pins. (They've shown up at Summer Games and even political conventions, but the Winter Games have had them most consistently.) A few pins always take on legendary status. Sometimes they're pins that have errors, like the one from the Los Angeles games that showed a U.S. flag with 51 stars. Or ones that have some illicit connotation, like the Atlanta pin that depicted the five Olympic rings made out of onion rings-an illegal use of an Olympic symbol. In Salt Lake, the hottest piece of metal seems somewhat improbable: it's, yes, a bowl of shimmery green gelatin-Utah's official snack food and a favorite Mormon dessert. Most pins can be swapped on the street in one-for-one trades. But the green Jell-O pin, initially $7 in stores, is now selling for upwards of $150. Our NEWSWEEK team decided to make it our Games-long quest to acquire one-hopefully without tapping out our expense accounts.
The green Jell-O pin was the talk of historic Park City as we wandered down the festive blocked-off Main Street Thursday afternoon. At the newly opened Coca-Cola pin trading center, there were thousands of pins from Olympics past and present. Everyone seemed to have heard of the Jell-O pin, but nobody had one to show us. Bob Christianson, a pin trader from New York City and a veteran of 14 Olympics, scoffed at the gelatin frenzy. "There's always a pin that catches people's attention," he said. "There are some valuable pins. Lime Jell-O just isn't one of them." Another hot commodity this year is the so-called "Mormons on bikes" pin, which features two men in traditional missionary garb (white shirts, black ties, black pants) riding bicycles. And, though no other head of an Olympic committee has ever commissioned his own pin, Mitt Romney ordered up three. My favorite: one in the shape of a baseball glove that reads MITT HAPPENS.
Turns out there's a whole hierarchy of pins. Besides phenoms like the Jell-O pin, the most valuable are media and law-enforcement pins. Our NEWSWEEK snowboarding pin is actually a hot commodity, Christianson told us, and should fetch three ordinary sponsor pins (like Coca-Cola's) or official Salt Lake issues. Official country pins also go for three to one, though a small country like Cameroon can be traded on a 10 to 1 basis. We picked up a few suggestions on how to inflate the street value of our NEWSWEEK pins: "Act like it's your last one," advised Coca-Cola spokesman Mart Martin. Coke not only has two trading centers-one in Park City and one that opens Saturday in Salt Lake-but it will offer a "pin of the day" each day during the Games.
This trading stuff was a lot more complicated than it seemed at first. Coke offers pin trading 101 seminars and sells special pin-trading bags to display your collection. There's even a "Pin Trading Etiquette" listed on handy index cards at the Coke tent. "Trade in a calm and friendly manner," it advises. "You don't have to speak the same language, just gesture to your pins and smile ... Don't interrupt a trade in progress. If you're wearing more than one pin, you're advertising yourself as 'open for trading'." Who knew? I was now an official pin trader. I swapped one NEWSWEEK pin for a "Coca-Cola ambassador" pin, which supposedly only Coke employees have. I traded another for one from Park City High School, apparently a valuable pin because they were issued in limited numbers-each student only got two.
But we were still in pursuit of green Jell-O. We heard rumors that someone in the Coke tent had one and did locate a trader from the Philippines who said he'd just swapped one. He pointed to an empty patch of black velvet in his trading case. "I just had it," he shrugged. He tried to interest us in other pins, but we were on a mission. We headed back out to the street and thought we'd struck gelatin at a crowded souvenir shop called The Dancing Raindeer. But we'd only found a red Jell-O pin packaged with a green Jell-O key chain. A bit off-point and, at $45, a bit beyond our skimpy budget. Jenny Papadakis, the proprietor, said she'd sold her last green Jell-O pin two days earlier-for $150. Instead, she offered a pin of another local delicacy, something called "fry sauce"-a stomach-turning concoction of mayonnaise, ketchup and barbecue sauce. (The food line of pins also features a bologna sandwich-it says MMM ... BOLOGNA on it-and something called Funeral Potatoes. Don't ask.) Papadakis was selling the fry sauce pin for $40, but she gave it to us for two NEWSWEEK pins. Not bad. Maybe it would be leverage for the real goal: that Jell-O.
Indeed, late Thursday night, as we strolled down the sidewalk back in Salt Lake City, a voice called out: "Hey miss, want to trade that fry sauce?" I turned around to find a grizzly pin trader eyeing the budding collection on my backpack. "I don't think so," I said. "Unless you've got green Jell-O." He opened his jacket and there, stuck to his official Olympic credential, was the green stuff. Our first actual sighting. But this guy was a pro. "Five hundred dollars," he said, darting into a local bar. I don't think so. Our quest continues.