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A Final Celebration For An Epic Olympic Collection

Having discussed pin trading, awarded medals, participation medals, and torches, what’s next for Jim Greensfelder’s Olympic collection?

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Charlie Moore

Posted on August 20, 2016

As the 2016 Olympics close this weekend, we’re likewise closing out our series of Olympics stories here at CompleteSet. This will be our fifth and final article chronicling the very interesting conversation we shared with Jim Greensfelder just prior to the games.

Leading up to this point, we’ve covered pin trading, awarded medals, participation medals and torches. With this final article, we’re going to discuss some of Jim’s more recent collections, the books he’s written, the film he made and, before we close, bring together a few final stories about a life spent in and around the Olympics. From there, we’ll send you on your way as we all start the countdown to the next Olympics, Pyeongchange 2018.

As you’ve already learned, Jim has been a part of a number of Olympic games. That said, I wanted to get a clearer picture of his involvement so I asked just how many he’d seen in an official capacity. Looking over to the wall of his office, he referred me to a frame holding a series of credentials. He explained, “Those are the ones where I was part of the Olympic family.”

Here, reverently framed, were athletes badges, participation medals and credentials from Jim’s time in that wonderful family. Over in another case he had a picture of the athlete he sponsored (see our Olympic pin trading story for more details) along with his credentials from those games.

Over the years, Jim has become an accomplished author on the topic of the Olympics. Asking how many books he’s written, he explained that he’s done seven different books.

One he showed me (pictured right) was published in English and Chinese for the Beijing games. Jim did quickly explain that in this avenue of publishing, you don’t really make any money on these books. You do it for the love. The one he did on the medals was hyper-focused on the details of actual medals; the weight, the size, who designed them and things of this nature. This book allowed people to ensure that the medal they had in hand was authentic. It took Jim over five years to publish the first edition. He added to it and corrected it in 2008.

Surprisingly, the book is actually still in print in Chinese but not in English. Jim explained that the Chinese government paid for the printing of the book. There were only 1,000 copies of the English version printed and Jim owns four of those. People from museums contact him from time to time so he keeps copies on hand in case they need to be donated to a worthy institution.

Next, the discussion turned to the 1904 Olympics and one of those chance discoveries you only dream of finding, no matter what you collect. Jim was intrigued by these games because it they were a very different kind of Olympics. It was only the third modern games and they had events like tug of war and other things you don’t really think of as sports today. One of those sports was golf which only returned to the Olympics with the current 2016 games. As a golfer himself, Jim went to St. Louis and played that same course used in the Olympics. Remarkably, 15 of the 18 holes are still identical to what the athletes played back in the day and this is a photo from those times.

Jim wasn’t just there because of the unique nature of the games. You see, his grandfather was born in St. Louis so he was originally there doing genealogical research. While at the St. Louis Historical Society he started digging around. The society was mostly interested in items from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. That was kind of the big event they focused on and the Olympics had become a bit of a historical tag along even though there were a number of impressive things from those games still standing today. Did you know that the Olympic stadium they built is the longest reinforced concrete stadium in the world?

The Society had a whole building dedicated to storing items from the World’s Fair, but Jim didn’t see much tied to the 1904 Olympics. Asking about it, one curator mentioned they thought they had a box tucked away with items from the games and the curator went to grab it for Jim. What happened next is the kind of story you dream of telling if you are a collector.

This box and the discovery that took place led to the book pictured above, left. In that book Jim has a picture of the box, which they brought down for him to investigate. As he began looking through the items it contained, he was floored. Asking the curator if they had any idea what this stuff was worth, of course, the answer was no. Jim explained this isn’t all that uncommon, as many museums sometimes don’t fully understand what they have or know a price because they have no intention of ever selling it. This was one of those situations. That box contained roughly half a million dollars worth of Olympic memorabilia.

Jim tried to get them to trade or sell the items but they weren’t interested. As a result, he wrote a book about the find and photographed everything. In his research of the book, he learned an interesting side story that fascinated him.

It turns out that that the first woman to ever win a gold medal in the Olympics was from Cincinnati and won it during the 1904 games. That medal was for the individual gold in archery and it went to Matilda Howell. That little find was all it took to send Jim down the road looking for more information about her. He eventually found articles written about her from 1903 and 1904. This is when it hit even closer home. She wasn’t from Cincinnati but rather from Norwood. As that was where Jim grew up, and where his dad was the fire chief, he was hooked. His research into this woman and her life continues even today as she ended up being the national women’s champion in archery for 20 years. Her husband was also the national men’s champion in archery for 20 years. It was the only time that the two leading archers in the world were husband and wife.

Additionally interesting, it turns out that the first African American ever to win an individual gold medal in the Olympics was from Cincinnati. Most people don’t know that, but DeHart Hubbard took gold during the 1924 Olympics in the long jump.

Moving away from history and back to Jim changing topics a bit, I was quite surprised to learn that one of the things which Jim and his partner got into after finishing the books was actually producing a movie. He explained that when you talk to new people about pin trading, they don’t always understand how it works so Jim and his partner put together a film to document the hobby.

One of the pin licensees sponsored the film and they got a college professor and his students to come with them to the Sydney Olympics to produce a movie. Shooting over 20 hours of film while they were there, Jim explained that it was a really fun experience. The students and professor were doing most of the camera work and he admitted that he didn’t know if it was professional but it looked professional to him. They had a script, which they followed, and then he was involved with the editing once they returned.

The professor who produced the movie was from Asbury College. He was a PHD who ran the entire department and just happened to also be an Olympic enthusiast. This same individual has been responsible for getting interns into the Olympic venues ever since the Calgary games. They don’t get paid, but they get into the organizing committee, are provided with credentials and they then go to work; typically they drag cable and that sort of thing.

In the end, Jim took ownership of all the tape produced for the film and he ended up making a second film from the outtakes. Because he knew so many of the people featured and they were collectors, there were many funny incidents that got cut. This is what he used to build the second film. He ultimately showed it at one of the get together events at the Olympic fairs they host and it went over really well. Jim admitted that building that film was more fun than making the original movie, Olympic Pin Trading – The Spectator Sport.

A movie isn’t the only unique thing Jim produced. Check out the poster you can see hinted at behind that flash in the top, right of the photo above. That poster features the Olympic participation medals and was officially approved by the Olympic committee. Jim explained that, of course, you have to get everything you do approved when producing things. He shared, “They have so many attorneys and they come after you if you don’t.” Looking over at the poster he explained that it was fully vetted by the IOC and he doesn’t think they’ve done anything else quite like it.

So, having collected so many things and become internationally known for those collections and the knowledge it fostered, what olympic memorabilia does Jim like to collect these days? How about beer steins and license plates?

Jim had a cabinet full of steins in his office and explained that he still enjoyed collecting them to this day. Steins and glasses, really any vehicle that’s used for alcoholic beverages, are his focus. He currently has about 600 so far. Roughly 20% of his collection is on display in his office just for fun. That boot at the center of my photo above is from Lake Placid. He showed me water skins from Sochi, Saki cups and even pewter ones from the 1920 Olympics.

Jim got into collecting these because he wanted something that wasn’t really in demand and no one else was collecting. He’d gotten tired of competing with people and getting into big money so he was looking for a simpler hobby and less aggressive chase. Of course, once he really got into it he learned that there were in fact other people collecting them. Just a few moments later he pulled out a book that had been produced detailing the different steins. What disappointed him more than the competition was that there were a lot of steins he’d never seen before.

Our conversation turned to Budweiser steins and he explained that for each Olympics they produced oversized ones that were not cheap. They would often initially retail for as much as $500 or more.

As for Olympic license plates, he currently has around forty to fifty. Here, a host country will typically make a special license plate with the rings on it. There are also official license plates for the Olympics issued to automobiles which are collectible. Some US states have also issued plates with rings and USA on them, with proceeds going to help fund the US Olympic committee. So far, Jim has collected one from every state that has made a plate in this way.

In terms of collecting though, Jim freely admits that these days he doesn’t feel like he has to have every stein or every one of the plates that exist. Sometimes he sees a new one and decides to pass on it. He did smile though as he proudly explained that he had fifty steins from the Munich games because the Germans are “big time” when it comes to their beer.

My final questions to Jim were about the games themselves. I was honestly curious, having been to as many games as he has, which does he prefer, summer or winter? His answer was short and quick; winter.

He explained that if you ever get the opportunity, you should really go to a winter games. Jim has made a lot of Scandinavian friends over the years and shared that they are just wonderful to be around. They’re all pretty avid skiing or snow people and no matter the sport. If they are interested in it, it isn’t just a passing thing but rather a way of life and they are really into it. At a summer games, the nights are filled with activity but during a winter games the nights are cold and everyone heads for a warm place to gather. He summed it up well explaining, “In the Winter they all like to drink and they drink, sing and it’s just fantastic.”

My final question went back to something Jim said near the very start of our conversation. When describing the first Olympic games he ever attended, he mentioned that it was “etched on his mind”. I wanted to know, what made it such a permanent memory? Was it the parade, the atmosphere, the athletes or just the overall pageantry. Without hesitation, he answered “pageantry”.

In that word, I suddenly, desperately wanted to be there too. Just sitting with a country cheering as their team entered or maybe poised over in a section where the nations were mixed and you were experiencing the entire world in a single, shared moment. That is the Olympics. It’s the stories, the celebrations, the coming together in a way we often find hard to achieve outside that stadium. I can see why it would be etched on a person’s soul.

As I end this series of articles, I want to take a moment and personally thank Jim for spending a few hours with me and offering such a wonderful slice of history. The pleasure, in doing this entire run of stories, was most certainly mine and there were moments during this conversation I will most certainly never forget.


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