Eighteen-year-old Tara Adkins attended her first Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 with her mom and aunt. One of the days there, they split up and agreed to meet back at a fountain outside the track and field arena.
When Adkins got to the fountain, she couldn’t find her mom or aunt anywhere. There was a flood of people who had just left a track and field event passing by the fountain, making it difficult to pick out individual faces. Eventually she gave up waiting and wandered back into the Olympic Park. She remembered seeing a cute boy working inside and was on a mission to find him.
She found the boy at a pin-trading station and began to talk to him and his coworkers. She explained her situation to them: that she was young, separated from her family and didn’t have enough money to pay for a ride back to her hotel outside the city.
The boy and his coworkers offered to take Adkins back to their hotel. Trusting them, she accepted. They were kind to her, fed her and let her take a shower.
The next morning, the people Adkins met got ready to head back to the Olympic Park to trade pins again.
“Why don’t you just work and we can give you some money to get home?” one of them said to her.
Adkins agreed and went to the park to trade pins. She earned enough money to get a ride back to her mom and aunt, but that wasn’t the end of her pin-trading career. Twenty-four years later, Adkins is still trading and selling pins. Getting lost turned into a lifestyle for her.
Pin trading draws in crowds of people at every Olympic Games. It attracts a range of people from amateurs who just want to see how many pins they can collect during the Games to professionals who make a living by selling and trading pins.
Adkins is now among the professionals. She has traveled to every summer Olympic Games since her first encounter with pins in Barcelona in 1992.
To prepare for the Games, Adkins and other traders make and buy the pins they want to bring with them.
“We’re more on the professional side, so we just order a ton and trade a ton,” Adkins said.
Adkins doesn’t work alone. She works with six other people who consider themselves to be a pin-trading company. This year, the company is calling themselves the Rio Pin Collectors. Once in the host country, the traders sell lanyards with a starter pin on it. The set costs $30. The pin by itself costs $25. Once the Olympic events actually start taking place, pin trading is in full swing.
Pin traders will set up shop wherever they can. They trade in the streets, in local shops and at booths on sidewalks.
“You’ll see us everywhere,” Adkins said.
Professional pin collectors make money by selling pins. The selling price depends on the type of pin. Athlete and country pins are more sought after. A typical pin costs less than $10, but rare pins can sell for more than $100 for a single pin. Adkins said the value of pins is really a personal preference. She likes pins with a more classic style. Some of her favorites are pewter pins from the 2012 London Olympics.
Alex Ruhlin and Patty Fryc, two Olympic volunteers from Colorado, noticed pin traders outside the Rio 2016 Olympic Megastore on Copacabana Beach. They checked out the pins to see if they could find one from the 1968 Mexico City games. Fryc’s father almost made the Polish Olympic team in 1968, so the two were hoping they could find a pin for him.
They were unsuccessful but blown away by the number of pins they were able to look through.
Olympic pin trading technically began in Athens at the 1896 summer Games, but didn’t really take off until 1984 at the Games in Los Angeles, according to Pinhunter, a pin-collector website. Trading has grown over the years with the addition of sponsored trading areas and more categories of pins. Categories include athlete pins, country pins, mascot pins and more.
For some Olympic Games, over 10,000 separate commemorative, mascot, sponsor, media, National Olympic Committee and law enforcement designs may be manufactured, according to myPins, the largest online resource for pin collecting.
Pin traders are recognized by their flare. Some people wear their pins on hats, scarves or jackets. Adkins typically wears hers on a lanyard, which is the most common way to display pins. She starts the Games with zero pins, but her lanyards are always full by the end. She doesn’t stop at the lanyard though. She also has a case of pins from previous Olympic Games that she brings to every game.
For Adkins, pin trading isn’t just a fun pastime. It’s a huge part of her life.
“It gets me here to live and explore and meet the locals,” Adkins said. “It’s amazing. Everybody wants to talk to you and ask you where you’re from.”
The pins drew her in, but they’re not Adkins’ main reason for doing what she does.
“The biggest thing for me isn’t necessarily the pins, but it’s definitely the ability to come and travel and go all these places,” she said.
When she’s not making money selling pins, Adkins works as a massage therapist and a waitress. She recently was accepted into a nursing program. The pin trading is what allows her to travel and take a break from her normal life.
Gail Schisler, a woman in the same company as Adkins, also trades for the thrill of travel. She said pin trading is an activity made for travelers. Rio is her eighth Olympics.
“It’s just been so much fun seeing other cultures and getting to travel and getting paid to travel,” Schisler said. “If I can make the same amount of money as if I was staying home, why wouldn’t I come here?”
The energy of the Olympic Games is what draws Cori Snelson to pin trading.
Snelson is not a regular pin trader. She just helps her uncle sell and trade the pins that he makes when she has the time. Rio is only her second Games, but she always feels a sense of unity when she attends the Olympic Games.
“It kind of makes you just appreciate that we’re all connected in some way or another,” Snelson said. “We’re all united during the Olympics. It’s such a good energy.”
The International Olympic Committee said the act of trading helps to bridge cultures by forging connections between people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds.
Pin culture involves a lot of bartering and trading. People have tried to trade things such as maps and coins for pins. Typically Adkins and Schisler don’t accept these kinds of trades.
“We want equal value,” Schisler said.
Snelson sold a pin for $150 at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.
Along with traveling and making money, pin traders create relationships with every Olympics they attend.
“We work with a lot of locals to do this,” Adkins said. “Sometimes we stay in touch; sometimes we don’t.”
Adkins and Schisler see familiar faces at every Olympics. They get to catch up with people every four years.
“It’s the same group of people we meet up with all the time,” Adkins said. “It’s fantastic.”
Miller Kern is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.