ROBERT WARD, an American here, has come to France to witness the 16th Winter Olympics - or has he? The event that really turns him on is not a sport at all, but what he describes as "the ultimate scavenger hunt": Olympic pin collecting.
Like several hundred other "pinheads," as collectors call themselves, Mr. Ward mills around the heated and carpeted interior of Coca-Cola's Official Olympic Pin Trading Centre, a large tent near the speed-skating oval and figure-skating arena in Albertville's Olympic Park.
Draped around his neck is a scarf that must feel like a yoke, it's so covered with the colorful little ornaments that have become the unofficial currency of the Olympics.
In the pin-trading center, no cash transactions are allowed - except at a long counter at the back of the tent, where beginners can purchase the pins needed to get started.
Once a person cuts himself in on the action, he or she discovers a free-form world in which little is known about availability and value. Personal taste and whim are the main market forces.
A pin guide was produced in 1984, the year that pin collecting really took off at the summer Olympics in Los Angeles (an estimated 30 million pins were made by the official licensee). But Olympic rules prohibited the publication of subsequent guides, which hobbyists would use to discover what's "out there" in terms of commemoratives sold as souvenirs by the official Olympic licensee, corporation and sponsor pins, and team pins given to Olympic athletes by their countries to wear, trade, or give away.
A pin's beauty is the main factor affecting its popularity, says Jack Kelly of Atlanta, an avid collector. Most pins are made in Taiwan; the best-quality ones are cloisonne, a centuries-old process that uses metal wire and enamel. Amid the hubbub in the pin-trading center, Mr. Kelly, president of Ted Turner's Olympic-style Goodwill Games, says there's sometimes no accounting for what generates demand.
"There are always a few pins that get hot for a few days," he says. "Then in the cold light of day people say, 'Hey, what is it about this pin that made it that way?
History can play a role in collecting trends, as when East German pins became highly prized at the Goodwill Games in 1990. And in Albertville, whatever is still circulating that bears the Soviet hammer and sickle has an obvious appeal. Anything with the official Albertville Olympic logo is also in demand.
"The real fanatic time is going to come in Atlanta in '96," Kelly predicts. "Americans, by nature, are collectors, and those will be the centennial Games."
IN mania took years to reach its current heights: There are now international pin-collecting clubs, newsletters, and - at the last few Olympics - pin-trading centers, a concept expanded here with roving mobile units.
"Up until 1980, most pin trading was limited to athletes and officials," says Laurie Artiss, the official pin licensee of the 1988 Calgary Winter Games and manager of the trading center here.
Pins date to the first modern Games held in 1896. They are used as identification badges for athletes, officials, and news media. By 1912, athletes had begun exchanging them as tokens of friendship and goodwill.