Visa Bumps MasterCard and AmEx from Olympic Venues

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J.P. Morgan Chase

Visitors attending the Olympics in London this summer might be performing athletic feats of their own just trying to find an ATM near the sites where the games are being held. British media reports say Visa is having more than two dozen ATMs at the Games locations switched off during the Olympics and replacing them with only eight of its own. The kicker? The machines will accept only Visa cards.

Rival ATM operator Ron Delnevo blasted the move in an article in The Guardian, saying the games would be “cash-starved by design.” Visa is planning to use the Olympics to promote contactless and mobile payment options. “The vast majority of people attending the Games … have no interest in becoming guinea pigs in product launches,” Delnevo says.

In an emailed statement, Visa touts its high-tech payment methods, including the debut of contactless payments, but people who prefer to keep their transactions old school might experience some challenges.

Spectators who want to have cash might be better off bringing it in with them. The Guardian predicts long lines at the few available ATMs, and people without Visa cards are just plain out of luck. Those with Visa credit cards should be able to set up their cards to make cash withdrawls, but APRs for cash advances are generally several percentage points higher than those for purchases, and there are no grace periods — so you start getting charged interest the minute the machine spits out your cash.

(MORE: Visa Puts Its Weight Behind New Smartphone Payment Systems)

Visa says that people can visit ATMs outside the game sites before entering. “London itself has substantial payment infrastructure outside of venues,” spokeswoman Nancy Panter says. Another option the company suggests is buying a prepaid Visa card. In addition, Panter says prepaid Visa Europe cards can be obtained by guests for no charge at customer service stations on-site at venues. She declines to comment on how much revenue it expects to earn from the ATM exclusivity.

This isn’t the first time Visa has drawn the ire of Olympics fans with its exclusivity policies. People were upset, The Guardian reported in 2010, when they found out that Visa was prohibiting U.K. residents from using cards issued by other companies, such as MasterCard or American Express, to buy tickets to the Games. The company spelled out its policy on the ticketing website, then prompted people to apply for a Visa card via a link on the site.

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An executive at a London marketing agency weighed in on the no-Visa, no-ticket rule last year, saying in an article, “The Visa exclusivity aspect — especially the way it is communicated — seems to us a major mis-step.”

Panter points out that Visa has been the exclusive payments sponsor of the Olympics for more than two decades and that the company has had ATMs that accept competing cards shut off in the past at game venues. The difference now seems to be that people don’t regularly carry large amounts of cash anymore. While this can be a good thing — if you drop a pile of cash, you’re probably out of luck; if you lose your card you can have it deactivated and get a replacement — the flip side is that people expect to be able to access cash on-demand.

For people who use MasterCard, American Express or any other brand besides Visa, attending the Olympics this summer will require the kind of planning and budgeting forethought that switching from cash to cards for daily transactions was supposed to eliminate.