Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Friday, August 27, 2004
Updated: August 30, 12:02 PM ET
The Olympic gear market is open

By Jim Caple
Page 2

ATHENS, Greece -- Just as I've finally grown acclimated to the weather, the 2004 Olympics are winding down. The temperature dipped below 90 this afternoon, and I felt a need to buy a sweater.

And I would have, if only I could have found an Olympic athlete selling one with his country's official emblem on it. Certainly, there are enough Olympians in the market. There are more than 10,000 athletes here, and many of them were issued a larger ensemble than you see during an entire season of "Sex and the City."

"We received 76 different pieces of clothing," Australian rower Peter Hardcastle told me.

"Seventy-six? I think we received more than that," said his teammate, Rebecca Sattin.

"Well, that's because you women also get those jog bras."

The Australian gear is so highly coveted that Hardcastle said a fan offered him 500 Euro (about $625) for his green and yellow running shoes in a bar the previous night. The fan made the offer even though he wore a different size shoe than Hardcastle. There was only one thing that stopped the transaction.

"I didn't have the shoes with me," Hardcastle said.

That's the trick. Most athletes are willing to trade or sell some of their gear, but they won't literally sell the shirt off their backs as if they were Brandi Chastain.

All this was easier in Atlanta in 1996. One of the Athletes Villages there was at Emory University near the Varsity Drive-In, and the Olympians opened up a veritable flea market in a parking lot at the end of the Games.

I told a friend about it and suggested that we go get some souvenirs. He was appalled by the idea, saying it was a desecration for a mere fan to buy an Olympic jersey earned by an athlete with years of training and sacrifice. He said he would feel dirty taking advantage of an economically disadvantaged athlete in this way. He said he was unworthy.

 
Wonder how much this wrestler from Uzbekistan would charge for his traditional garb?
I understand this view. But I convinced him to go the parking lot, anyway, where we found a virtual Moroccan bazaar. Athletes from around the world were selling their excess merchandise. Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Thailand, Japan -- you name the country, there was someone selling a shirt with the name across the chest.

I was just about to close the deal on a very smart Swedish dufflebag when someone upped the ante at the last minute, offering the athlete another $20.

"Deal," the Swede said, taking the money and handing the bag, not surprisingly, to my friend.

I glared at him. "I thought you were offended by the idea of buying gear off an Olympian," I said.

"I am," he said. "But Sweden is a highly developed country with one of Europe's strongest economies. I don't feel so bad buying something from them."

I nodded and returned my attention to the remaining wares. I selected a nice Thai warmup jacket, handed over my money and looked around for my friend. I found him negotiating with an athlete from Uzbekistan over a blue warmup suit.

The Uzbek wanted to sell the entire suit for $100, but my friend only wanted the jacket. After much haggling in broken English and gestures, my friend convinced the athlete to sell him the jacket for $60, and convinced him that he could sell the pants for another $60 and make even more money. This was complete nonsense. The jacket had the country logo on it. The warmup pants were just blue warmup pants with no country identification. They looked no different from what you'd buy at Target. It would be impossible for the Uzbek to sell them without the top -- they were essentially worthless.

"You just fleeced that guy," I complained. "There's no way he can sell those pants on their own."

"Hey, no one said there would be no pain for the former Soviet republics when they joined the free market system," he said.

In a matter of 30 minutes, my friend had completely reversed field. He'd gone from not wanting to buy anything to unashamedly taking advantage of an athlete from a country with one of the world's poorest economies.

 
You want this outfit. You know you do. Especially the hat.
The thing is, that was eight years ago. And I still haven't seen him wear the warmup jacket.

Here in Greece, I haven't found the right item yet, even though I spent an hour at the airport this morning loitering in the terminal for departing Olympians. I couldn't find anyone with anything I wanted. I would have stayed longer, but I got the sense that airport security was about to bring me into a back room for questioning.

No worries, though. The market will expand tremendously this weekend as the Olympics end and the athletes run out of room in their suitcases. The Australians are even holding a fire sale on Saturday. The key is to make a wise purchase, not just an impulse buy. My rules:

1. The clothing must fit. I once made the mistake of buying a British marathoner's jersey and singlet, only to find that I could have run a marathon a day for the next four years and still not been able to squeeze into it. Maybe the fact that it was a woman athlete who sold it to me should have been a clue, but I was too caught up in Olympics Fever to notice. Never again.

2. The item must be something I'll wear. It must be distinctive, but it has to be subtle and it has to be practical. I bought a coveted poorboy cap off a Canadian snowboarder at Nagano in 1998, and I still wear it on occasion. The same guy offered me his Canadian letterman's jacket as well for $300, but I just couldn't see ever wearing it without looking like more of a dork than I already am.

3. I must be able to recognize the country immediately by its flag or its Olympic logo. And I have to be able to place it on the globe and know what system of government it has. This limits me to about 12 countries; but otherwise, it's just like holding out a baseball and yelling, "Hey, No. 12 -- sign my ball!"

4. And finally: Don't overpay. Someone offered a guy on the Greek baseball team $600 for his jersey, which shocked a teammate until someone else offered $1,250 for his jersey. That is insane. A piece of the Olympics is nice, but so is not having to explain to your spouse that you can't pay the mortgage because you just had to have that Lithuanian equestrian cap.

And now if you'll excuse me, I've got to run to the ATM. I think I just saw that Uzbek from Atlanta across the plaza over there.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com