09/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The "Politics" of an Olympic Pastime: Pin Trading at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Nearing the end of the Games, broadcasters have settled into work routines and the International Broadcast Center main help desk has quieted down. Now, the questions we receive are less about logistics and transportation and more like "Do you want to trade pins?" It seems pin trading has consumed almost everyone at the Olympic Green---volunteers, managers, broadcasters, technicians and myself included. I originally resisted this Olympic pastime until I discovered its political undertones.

"Pins are huge," says Chinese volunteer Yang, who like others displays his collection on his yellow BOCOG lanyard. "They say I was here at the Olympics, and I got to take something away." Teams, news agencies, corporate sponsors and the organizing committee typically produce unique pins to commemorate each Olympic Games.

As I enter a McDonalds on the Olympic Green, the employees pounce on my pins before asking to take my order. Trading clearly comes first.

Eyeing the lanyards of each person I pass, I notice that the Chinese collectively seem to possess the most pins, although those of the Thai broadcasters' are studded from end to end, too.

Some frazzled foreigners trade or give pins away as thanks for helping out. Qiu, a popular Chinese volunteer, quickly went from zero to 15 pins, each a token of appreciation.

Some people collect only a few, whereas for others, like Yang, "My neck is getting lower and lower."

But not all pins are created equal. It's not about how many you take away, but which ones, and the popular choices amongst Chinese collectors seem to have journalistic and political significance. For example, pins from American and Taiwanese official organizations are particularly prized.

Yang traded three pins--Bank of China, Kodak, and a Fuwa (Olympic mascot)--for one coveted NBC pin.

"I admire the American press. They emphasize criticism rather than narration. I always get a new perspective," says Yang about NBC.

But today two Chinese broadcasters desperately wants to trade an NBC pin for my Taiwanese (or Chinese Taipei) broadcasting pin. A woman corners me later with the same request. She says she wants it because, "One day, Taiwan will return to China." I resist, realizing I can trade even higher up.

There are other trends besides political importance. Larry Maloney is a professional pin collector from Washington D.C. who has been to nine Olympics and has collected over 5,000 pins from Games as far back as 1912. While he prefers NOC country pins, others prefer media or corporate sponsors. The Chinese who trade with him prefer Fuwa (the five Olympic mascots), elaborate designs and gold, a color that symbolizes happiness and wealth. For example, Chinese traders quickly snatched up the gold Coca Cola pins he brought from the Salt Lake City Games.

There are four official pin-trading centers in Beijing, including one at the Olympic Village and one Coca Cola operates at Chaoyang Park. Other collectors informally stake out prime trading spots, such as outside the IBC and MPC or at athletic events.

A day after my first conversation with Yang, he trades his NBC pin for three Canadian Broadcasting pins. His friend calls him a "stupid egg" in Chinese. I vow not to make a similar mistake.

Note - Check out Wall Street Journal correspondent Loretta Chao's assessment of the value of a WSJ pin at the Chaoyang Park trading center.