This man has been to 17 Olympic Games. Here’s what he’s learned

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Getting the opportunity to attend the Olympics Games is a life-long dream for many fans.

Some will have been fortunate enough to have achieved this at least once. Others more than once.

However, it’s safe to assume that few will have as many under their belt as Olympics enthusiast Jeff Kolkmann, who has traveled to a staggering 17 Olympics Games in his lifetime.

Kolkmann, from California, says his passion for the Olympics began at the age of six, when his father rented a television for a month so that the family could watch the 1968 Winter Games, which was held in Grenoble, France.

He tuned in to the international multi-sport event regularly from that point on, but it would be several years before he’d be able to watch it in person.

Long-standing passion

At the age of 18, Kolkmann went to school in France to learn French, which along with English is one of the official languages of the Olympic Games, and made a point of introducing himself to the Olympics Organizing Committee.

But it was his connection to a famous basketball player, former Los Angeles Lakers star Brad Holland, that finally paved the way for him to go to his first ever Olympic Games – the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Kolkmann says he was able to get his foot through the door by landing a gig working behind the scenes at the Olympic basketball games because he was related to Holland, a member of the 1980 Los Angeles Lakers championship team.

“Everybody knew who my cousin was,” he explains.

Kolkmann recalls getting particularly emotional while watching the France international basketball team play against Uruguay during the event.

“When I saw France, I started to cry,” he says. “Because it was a country that I’d lived in and had very special feelings for. It just brought a lot of pride to me.”

He was given his first ever Olympic pin while at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, and has been collecting them ever since.

Four years later, he scored his first television job working for ABC Sports television at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.

As he didn’t have his own car, Kolkmann’s parents helped him to buy a Volkswagen Jetta, so that he could drive up to Canada for the event.

It was during the Calgary Winter Olympic Games that Kolkmann received his first Olympic pin from a gold medalist, which was given to him by Swedish cross-country skier Gunde Svan.

Sporting history

“I said, ‘Hey, do you know, where can I get one of those Swedish Olympic pins that you’re wearing?’” he recalls.

“He pulled it off his jacket, and said, ‘I can get another one. This one’s for you.”

In the years that followed, Kolkmann made it his mission to be at every Olympic Games, and would take pretty much any job he was offered if it meant being able to do so.

Although he had to skip the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea as he was unable to find work, Kolkmann made it to the 1992 Albertville Olympic Games, the last Winter Games to be staged in the same year as the Summer Games, the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

He fondly recalls witnessing American sprinter Michael Johnson break the world record for the 200-meters at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and getting the opportunity to congratulate him afterwards.

“He came into the television studios,” he explains. “And I said, ‘Michael, thank you for making history for us.’”

However, Kolkmann missed out on seeing one of the other most talked about moments from that event – legendary boxer Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch – in person.

“I was working that night,” he recalls. “So I had to see that on television.”

In 1998, he flew to Japan for the Nagano Winter Olympic Games, and two years later, he was in Sydney, Australia for the 2000 Summer Olympics, where he worked for an Australian TV channel.

He jubilantly recounts snagging tickets to the figure skating at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which he attended as a spectator, in 2002, much to the delight of his then-wife.

Collecting memories

“Figure skating tickets are like the hardest Winter Olympic tickets ever to get,” he explains.

He went on to travel to Greece for the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics, taking a job working for a radio station, and was in Turin, Italy two years later for the 2006 Winter Olympics.

In 2008, Kolkmann flew to Beijing, China for the Summer Olympics after finding work as a ticket agent.

“The airport was the most impressive thing to me,” he says. “Landing there in Beijing. That is one the most impressive airports in the world.”

Although he struggled with the language barrier, he says he thoroughly enjoyed his time in the city, and spent many hours pounding the streets and meeting fellow Olympics fans.

“You always want to be out and about,” he explains. “You’re either trading Olympic pins with people from around the world, or you’re trying to get tickets to the events.”

Kolkmann was watching from the stands when Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt made history with a record-breaking time during the men’s 100-meter sprint.

“Watching Usain Bolt win that gold medal, and then going to London four years later and seeing him do it again, that was impressive,” he recalls.

In 2010, Kolkmann brought his son Jordan, then 13, along with him to the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

Having spent so many years of his childhood watching the event on TV with his own father, this was a particularly special moment for him.

“It was a thrill,” says Kolkmann. “We were running around so much.”

While in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, he bumped into one of Jordan’s heroes, basketball player Lebron James, who was playing for Team USA, in front of the Olympic Village.

Kolkmann’s passion for the Olympics has seen him travel to places he never have imagined he’d visit, including Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 summer Olympics, well as South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics,

“Because the Olympics are held in different places, that’s what’s basically taken me around the world,” he says. “That’s where the basis of my travels has come.”

Lifelong pursuit

Over the years, Kolkmann has managed to collect around 4,000 Olympic pins, as well as some extraordinary memorabilia, including a signed jersey from Brazilian volleyball player Alexandre Ramos Samuel, known as Tande.

He’s also made many friends in the Olympic community – he and his closest Olympic enthusiast friends call themselves “pinheads.”

After missing out on the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, where spectators were banned, and the 2022 Winter Olympics, which was held in Beijing, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Kolkmann is excited to be attending the Summer Olympics in Paris next year.

“I’ve been to 17 Olympics altogether now and I’m planning to go to Paris for 2024,” he says.

“I’m almost floating off the ground already.”

He loves sharing stories with fellow Olympic fans and says that many are stunned when they find out just how dedicated a fan he is.

“The funny thing is when I meet these [important] international Olympic people, they look at me and they’re like, ‘You’ve actually been to more Olympic Games than we have.” he says.

Being able to travel to so many different countries and meet people from all walks of life while pursuing his passion has helped to change his outlook on the world, and he says he worries a lot less as a result.

“You can find something beautiful in every country. If you realize that people are just like you, you’re not going to worry about stuff,” he says.

“You don’t even have to have the language. You have eye contact. You have body language. And you might share food together.

“You might trade an Olympic pin. But there’s so much connection that you can make.”

As one of the few people to have been to 17 Olympic Games over nearly three decades, as well as every single Olympics from 1992 to 2018, Kolkmann, now 60, says he’s often asked which has been his favorite.

While he’s undoubtedly made wonderful memories at each and every event, there’s one in particular that stands out.

“It has to be the very first one,” says Kolkmann, who currently works in sales for solar projects. “Because that’s the one that inspired me to go to the others.

“But literally each and every Olympic Games,  it’s its own history. You can just have gone to one, and it’s a lifelong memory.

“People always say it [going to the Olympics] will be ‘the dream of a lifetime.’ And sure enough, each and every time, it really is.”

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