The Pin Thing

Have you heard about the Olympic pin thing?

The deal is you show up with a bunch of pins from your home country, or town, or ski club, and you trade them for other pins.

When I first heard about this from my father-in-law, who played hockey for Finland at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, I thought, “Oh how quaint.”

I was sure it had to be some relic from the past. I mean, what’s the point in collecting pins from other countries nowadays when it’s so easy just to travel to those places, unlike 50 years ago? Why collect buttons on your lapel when you can collect email addresses in your contact list? Who needs to connect with pins when you can connect with Facebook?

Clearly, I didn’t get it.

The Olympics are here and now. Spectators and even former Olympians don’t travel to the Olympics just to watch the competitions. They attend the Olympics to be in the middle of them. In the middle of the spectacle. In the middle of the drama. And in the middle of all the people.

When you are here, you want to take it all in. You want to chase down the tall men with the black, blue and white flags to ask where they are from. (Estonia). You want to tell the lady standing next to you that you just met a guy from the US snowboarding team. You want to listen when an elderly Brazilian woman recounts how she competed in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.

The pins serve as a way to open the conversation or to seal the deal.

My daughters hats’ are covered in pins. They have met all sorts of individuals who stop them and politely ask if they want to trade pins. I can’t imagine a more exciting way for two young girls to feel like they are a part of the action. Once we start talking to the pin traders, we learn that they have a sister-in-law competing in the two-man luge, or that they are from the Netherlands and are attending their third Olympics.

Yesterday evening a gentleman at the Irish Pub couldn’t contain himself. He had to tell someone that he’d met the parents of gold medal skier Aksel Lund Svindal on the chairlift that day and had spent the entire afternoon skiing with them. He was talking to the right crowd. Our own son, called Aksel, was with us. Maybe because of the name thing, we’re the Norwegian skier’s biggest fans. We chatted with the man at the pub for a while and then concluded our conversation with an exchange of pins.

At the two-man bobsled last night we were discussing the speed of the bobsledders with a Vancouver native standing next to us. Then he spontaneously gave us a cute pair of red, knitted Canada Olympics mittens for Aksel. (OK, not pins, but in fact more practical). We thanked him with a gift of two Finland pins. He was delighted.

The Olympics are about the athletes and everyone else as well, from the support staff to the volunteers to the fans. And the pins are a way to meet all of those people, to thank them for being a part of it, and to remember the experience long after the games are over.

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