For retired Chinese collector, chains are key to Olympics history 2008-07-29 14:08:02   Print

Special report:   2008 Olympic Games    

    By Yang Jianxiang, Xinhua writer

    BEIJING, July 29 (Xinhua) -- The modern Olympics began in 1896,thanks to Baron Coubertin of France, who brought the Games back to life centuries after their demise in late antiquity. But there were many earlier attempts to revive this classical Greek tradition, and a lot of the evidence for those attempts can be seen on the most mundane of objects: the key chain.

    "I have a bronze key chain issued for an 1865 Junior Olympics. I've posted an image of it on my blog," said retired media technician Sun Baochuan, who has been collecting Olympics key chains for many years.

    It seems that Sun, an ordinary-looking, lean older man with a strong south China accent, could go on for hours. He's even published a book about the modern Olympics. Yet he's not a scholar or historian, just a man with a passion for Olympics history.

    Talking about key chains, Sun's eyes glitter. He has more than 600 of these mementoes, covering all the modern summer games, plus the mascot key chains for all the Winter Olympics and Paralympics since 1968. These are part of a 7,000-odd piece collection that's taken a lot of Sun's time since his retirement eight years ago.

    Sun's first Olympic chain, a bronze medal featuring a naked male disc thrower on the front and an eagle clutching an olive branch in its claws on the back, was a gift from a colleague who went to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. The event was special to the Chinese because it marked China's return to the Games after decades of absence -- and shooter Xu Haifeng won the first Olympicgold medal in China's history.

    Sun has sought key chains for all the Olympics since then, whether in the Games cities, at flea markets, or through friends and family. When China won its bid for the 2008 Games, Sun's collection soared. He's got more than 200 types of key chain for these Olympics.

    Many of his items are bronze or copper, with a few pieces of plastic. Some show the real or imaginary animals that have been Games mascots.

    Sun made some of the key chains himself. The 1916 Berlin Olympics did not take place because of World War I. Sun obtained a playbill for the planned event and used it to make a small image for a self-made chain.

    The 1944 London Olympics was another victim of conflict, in this case World War II, and Sun could only find a set of three stamps issued in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the International Olympics Committee was based. He made one stamp into a plastic key chain.

    For most pre-1984 Games, Sun did his collecting online, often through auctions. Although he was a technician and a graduate of the Wireless Electronics Department of Tsinghua University, Sun had to learn about buying online.

    One technique he used was to submit a last-minute bid at a much higher price than the most recent offer, a practice known as bid sniping. "If you want the object very much, your quote should be considerably higher than the current price," Sun said. And it can work.

    For example, to get a key chain associated with the abortive 1940 Helsinki Olympics, Sun offered 150 U.S. dollars at the last minute. He got it at 110 U.S. dollars, not including postage. He pays for his online bids with his daughter's U.S. credit card.

    The hobby has proven rather costly: Sun has spent most of his pension on it. Fortunately, he has his family's support.

    "Someone once told me that my key chains should increase in value, but I don't know about that ... for me the collection is a pleasure, a record of memories and a reflection of history and culture," Sun said.

    His wife, who is also retired, tolerates his midnight bouts of buying and helps catalogue his collection. She was also a narrator at an exhibit of his collection this month in Beijing.

    Sun's love affair with key chains began in 1975, during his first trip abroad -- a business visit to Paris. Like many collectors, he started small.

    China was fairly poor at the time and each member of the delegation had a foreign currency allowance of just 20 U.S. dollars. Sun returned with a small gift in his luggage, a key chain with a plastic case showing major scenic spots in Paris.

    "The key chain was handy, lovely and relatively cheap," Sun recalled, "It was a souvenir I could afford."

    When he was in Moscow in 1996, a colleague took him to a flea market. After buying several sets of the famous Russian nested dolls, he looked around. Suddenly, he saw a golden key chain in the shape of a brown bear that had the five-ring Games logo on its belly. It was mascot Micha for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He snapped it up without bothering to bargain.

    "I was afraid someone else would take it away," Sun said.

    Another time, in Japan, Sun's bus stopped near an American military base in Okinawa. At a roadside stall, a young Japanese man was selling small objects left by departing U.S. soldiers.

    Sun caught sight of a wooden medal-like key chain painted with the image of an F-16 fighter. It was a piece of handiwork by a U.S. soldier. "Nobody noticed it except me. I bought it because it looked unique," Sun said.

    His total collection has surpassed 7,000 pieces and to Sun, each object has a story and memories.

    His collection has given Sun a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Olympics. His 238-page book, published in January, was entitled "A Heart Chained to the Olympics".

    The book covers the modern Olympics and Sun's collection, as well as giving a general introduction to the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. In addition, Sun noted 145 "firsts" or "bests" about the Olympics.

    Sun said he briefly tried stamp collecting when he was a poor boarding student in the middle school. After that, however, life had been hard for many years and he had no time or money for collecting.

    "The start in 1975 was accidental. But as you get more [items of a collection], you develop a love. It's a natural process," Sun said. He likened it to yuan fen, a Chinese Buddhist term alluding to destiny.

    After graduation, Sun stayed at Tsinghua University for three years. He later moved to the technical division of a government department. He also worked in the Technical Bureau of Xinhua News Agency for more than a decade. "Whatever you do, do it with seriousness and devotion," he said.

    On his blog, Sun describes himself as "a retired-but-restless media technology worker". He still has some light duties, serving as honorary president of the China Association of Press Technicians, and goes to an office every day. But he's got time on his hands, and it's going into his growing collection.

    His Beijing Olympics collection includes 30-plus sets of the five Fuwa mascots and other items featuring the Bird's Nest, Water Cube and related subjects.

    Sun also plans to keep collecting after the Beijing Games. He still has an eye out for some elusive items, such as chains from three of the Winter Olympics: the 1936 Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; the 1960 Games in Squaw Valley, California and the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

    It seems his hobby also runs in the family. When Sun visited the United States in 2006, his 5-year-old granddaughter had a school assignment: to buy a Christmas gift for her grandparents. The little girl chose a key chain. Now she has a small collection of Beijing Olympic key chains.

    "I once joked that Olympic collecting should start with children," Sun said.

Editor: An
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