Pin to win: Meet Steamboat Olympic pin collector Howard Levin
February 1, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Sure, Steamboat Springs’ Todd Lodwick has competed in a record six Winter Olympics and Johnny Spillane four. That's peanuts compared to pin collector Howard Levin.
While he might not have competed in them, Levin has been to 12 Olympic Games, all in the name of purveying pins.
Yes, while many people attend the Olympics to spectate, Levin pins his hopes on pins — those quirky metal and enamel buttons that come in all shapes, designs and sizes epitomizing specific Games. He designs and sells his own, trades others and barters with the best of them in one of the Games' most unsung hobbies.
At the Rio Games, he even had former Today Show host Matt Lauer plug one of his custom-designed pins live on his show.
"I've been very, very lucky," says the pin baron Levin, who brings thousands of pins of varying design to any given Olympics and has thousands more in his home collection off Elk Lane.
Levin, a former Steamboat ski patroller and fundraiser for the Jimmie Heuga Foundation, first started pining for pins at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. He learned the art of trading there — the key, he says, is getting common features for common features — and has been to every Olympics since, amassing quite a collection.
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"I had never experienced it before I got to Barcelona," he says. "I collected all the different sports pins I could find with a mascot, framed the entire collection and then gave it away as a gift. But it got me hooked."
At subsequent Olympics, he began collecting different types of pins, from basketball Dream Team pins to country team pins (many athletes are given pins from their national committees).
"I like to focus on the team pins," he says. "You can't buy those commercially."
He also began making his own, through a designer in Denver, using elements he thought would attract the most interest. Using countries' flags is popular, he says, as are over-sized pins that can hang on a lanyard, which he also designs. At the Athens Games, he stumbled upon a "heart" theme and has since made them for 65 different countries.
Traditional pins are issued by national Olympic committees, sponsors, bid cities, media outlets and more. Combined with those made by fans like Levin, tens of thousands surface at each Games, where they are given away and traded by athletes, sponsors, reporters, spectators and collectors.
"You have to have pins to trade for other pins," Levin says, adding that in London he received an Olympic volunteer uniform in exchange for one of his pins. "A lot of people want to trade for them. It's the biggest non-athletic sport at the Olympics."
They also help break down social barriers for everyone from athletes to spectators.
"They're a great ice breaker," writes New York Times reporter Ken Belson, who noticed enough of a trend to pen a story on the pins. "They're a kind of social currency, a pre-Facebook form of social media that gives random fans a reason to start talking and form friendships. People who would have normally walked past me stopped me to look at my pins."
Virginia's Tim Jamieson, who began collecting pins at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, has more than 30,000 in his collection.
Pin tycoon and historian Don Bigsby has one of the largest collections in the world, at more than 100,000. Amazon has an official site for them, and there's even a website for the devoted — olympinclub.com. Its Olympic Collectors Club is the oldest pin club on the planet, with more than 500 members in 30 countries. There's also an annual Olympic Pin Collector's Fair, held this year in Los Angeles.
While Levin might not be in that collectors' league, he's definitely the Kingpin of Routt County.
"No one in town has close to his collection," says local Gail Schisler, who's been to eight Olympics working with Levin to sell, trade and spread the pin love. "He's done more for the Olympic pin business than perhaps anyone. There are other collectors, but no one is as interested in the people and places behind the pins, and the pin world itself. He really enjoys doing it."
Schisler, who has amassed quite a collection herself, says she and Levin spend their time at the Games selling and trading ("You're always looking for equal value, or to trade up," she says), but also teaching people about pins. When they went to Rio, she says, not many people knew about them; after two weeks playing evangelists, everyone did.
"It's a gamble every time, because you don't know how locals are going to feel about them," she says. "But he gets the local economy interested in them."
It's good for him economically as well. As well as adding to his collection, he often profits from his pin peddling.
His most lucrative Games were the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where he had 30 official designs approved by the Japanese Olympic Committee and employed 50 people to sell and trade the 120,000 pins he brought over. The prices went up as the Games progressed, he says, from $15 to $20 per pin initially to $120 toward the end.
"It was beyond our wildest dreams," he says, adding it provided him the security to launch a successful writing career, authoring such books as "Quotations for Successful Living" and "A History of Horses Told by Horses."
"But every Olympics is different," he says, and the pin’s highest value is always at the Olympics themselves. "You never know what's going to be hot at any given Games. It could be mascots one year and flags the next."
The "world peace" theme, he adds, has been popular ever since 9-11.
You also have to be aware of counterfeits, he cautions. Before trading, he'll check each national committee pin's back stamp to make sure it's official.
"I've seen plenty of fake ones, and I won't trade for them," he says. "I have a pretty good eye for it."
It's that eye and knack for generating genuine enthusiasm about the hobby that has made Levin one of the country's top lynchpins of the movement.
"I love it," says Levin, who won't be going to PyeongChang (the first Olympics he'll miss in 26 years) but is pinning his pin hopes on Tokyo again in 2020. "People have a lot of fun with it. The key is getting ones you won't find in any store."