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Going for gold: Royal Mail issues Olympian stamps

Wednesday - 8/8/2012, 4:11pm  ET

By DANICA KIRKA
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - These British athletes can't be licked.

The Royal Mail has been busy paying tribute to the country's Olympians in the last two weeks with special-issue stamps for gold medalists. The stamps feature the athlete in an action photo taken as they were competing _ and with Britain in third place on the gold medal table, Royal Mail's been on overdrive printing those new stamps.

Collectors like 68-year-old Herman Sanchez, a postal worker from Los Angeles who has traveled to nearly every Summer Olympics for the last 20 years, are beside themselves with joy _ and much of the British public is too.

"For ordinary people, this is the only chance you have to touch the spirit of the Olympics," he said.

For a people widely stereotyped for their apparent lack of outward emotion, Britons have proven to be downright excited about these London Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee says more than 50 million people, or 88 percent of the British population, have watched some Olympics coverage on television. Tens of thousands have jammed roadsides to watch the women's marathon, cycling and other competitions that can be seen without tickets or followed events on outdoor TV screens.

Add to that the sight of gold medal cyclist Chris Hoy weeping atop the medals podium as "God Save the Queen" is being played _ and lots of people are flocking to the post office.

They're snapping up Jessica Ennis leaping over a hurdle as she makes her way to a gold medal in the heptathlon. They like mod, sideburned cyclist Bradley Wiggins, who won Olympic gold shortly after his victory at the Tour de France.

And Hoy, well, they can have him twice, once as a member of the British team that captured the men's track sprint and the other for winning individual gold in the keirin.

Usually, it's much more complicated to get your face on a stamp in Britain. Queen Elizabeth II usually needs to approve stamp designs.

But for these stamps, the design is already approved and a picture of the victor _ say Mo Farah in the 10,000 meters _ is subbed in when they win.

Getty, the official photographic agency of the IOC, supplies Royal Mail with a few action images. One is selected and the presses roll well into the night if necessary. The stamps are ready to be delivered to 500 post offices by the next day and then gradually to over 7,400.

"We hope people use them on letters," Candice Macdonald, a spokeswoman for Royal Mail. "That's what stamps are for, after all."

The stamps have been so popular that a demi-controversy arose when Royal Mail announced it wouldn't be able to do the same thing for all of Britain's Paralympic gold medalists. Up to now, organizers have been at pains to offer equal treatment to all athletes.

But the sheer number of medals predicted for Britain in the Paralymics _ hopes are high for as many as 10 medals a day _ made it a logistical impossibility. At the moment, four or five a day is pushing the Royal Mail's capacity.

Stamp lovers hope the Olympic stamps will inspire a new generation of enthusiasts back to a hobby that is now so 17th century.

"Stamp collecting is a declining hobby," said Bob Wilcock, vice president of the society of Olympic collectors. "We're hoping to show a whole new generation the value of collecting."

Wilcock is an evangelist on the subject, working in a hot little wooden hut outside the British Library to help others who share his passion. He and other stamp lovers have set aside cardboard boxes for die-hard enthusiasts, collecting their envelopes _ or covers as they call them. They take them to a handful of places where they can get them hand cancelled with a stadium or another special Olympic image.

The British Library is the center of all this because there's a big exhibition featuring stamps from past Olympics along with other memorabilia.

Stamps from London's 1948 games are on display, together with a high resolution copy of notes that King George VI made on the designs when he approved the images.

The stamps offer a tour of past Olympics. Wilcock, however, is hoping that people don't stop with just that, noting that it was a collector who saved the only known existing poster of the 1908 London Olympics, which were hastily held here after Mount Vesuvius erupted and Rome pulled out of hosting the event.

Sanchez hopes he can show how wonderful this all is _ dragging a suitcase full of envelopes and stamps around London, making sure they all get their appropriate cancel marks. He sends them to other collectors, too, so they can join in.

And it isn't his only treasure either. He also has a white Olympic flag with the signatures of former gold medalists like diver Greg Louganis and sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner. While in London, he is seeking the ultimate signature: Michael Phelps.

"Collecting," he says, "is the sport of the spectator."


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)