Postcard Album Update: Quest for Olympic gold – on postcards

Paris tried to kill me.

Food poisoning would have been enough for one visit, but I was knocked over when a crowd surged forward in an elevator going down to the subway and tripped up by a vicious piece of metal sticking out of the ground near the Arc de Triomphe. It was a relief to get on a train for Rome until an electrical fire under our sleeping car provided a little more excitement.

But without bloody knees from my encounter with partially buried debris, I never would have sought sanctuary in that most American of refuges: MacDonald’s. And guess what! They were giving away a free postcard in support of the French team going to the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta. The card I brought home was a unique addition to my small Olympics collection and one I was unlikely to see again anywhere else.

The modern Olympics came into being when an international committee was formed in 1894. The first summer games were held, very appropriately, in Athens in 1896 and have continued to the present with timeouts for two world wars.

It’s possible to put together a stunning collection of postcards promoting the games, but many carry a high price tag. A quick check of eBay prices showed an asking price of $500 for a futuristic Italian design for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, $250 for a real photo of an athlete at the same event, and $100 to $300 for cards from the 1940s and ’50s.

But no collector need be discouraged by upper-end prices and a scarcity of early cards. Every Olympics, including both summer and winter games that now alternate every two years, has been commemorated by postcards.

One of the flashiest series was issued by the U.S. Postal Service for the 1996 games. They were postal cards with the stamp design on the front, but they could also be ordered as first-day-of-issue cards with the stamp matching the design, cancelled on the front.

If government-issued cards seem too commercial, there are official ones licensed by the United States Olympics Committee. Use of the distinctive five rings has to be authorized.

It’s easy to find postage stamps issued for the games, but the trick is to find them used on postcards related to the places where they’re held. Ones sent by travelers or visitors to the games are more desirable than those created by and for collectors.

The cities that host Olympics invest a great deal in building new facilities. Postcards showing the arenas, stadiums, ski runs and other construction still in use after the event have a place in an Olympics collection, but my favorite post-Olympics card shows Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals in 1936. Adolph Hitler hoped to prove the myth of Aryan superiority in the Berlin Olympics, banning Jewish and Romani (gypsy) athletes from his highly trained team, but an African-American was the most outstanding athlete of the games and the era.

National pride and love of spectacle make the Olympics far more important than just another athletic event. Enjoy them again and again on postcards.