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The Olympic legacy of contactless payments

With the dereliction of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic sites all over the news at the moment and the iconic Maracana stadium looking nothing short of unrecognisable, coupled with the ongoing drama closer to home regarding West Ham United’s move into London’s Olympic stadium, the Games are firmly back in the news. While it is easy to dwell on the negative legacies of the Games, I have taken the opportunity to reflect on the past two to compare how they have positively impacted our industry and, in particular, brought contactless payments to the fore.

The 2012 London Games was dubbed by Visa as the first ‘cashless’ Games. The term was given because, for the first time in over 25 years of Olympic sponsorship, Visa chose to push a product at a Games – contactless. Contactless cards were nothing new five years ago – millions of cards had already been issued but, by the summer, it remained to be seen if the technology would be adopted as widely as anticipated at the start of the year.

London, therefore, provided the perfect environment for a large-scale test. 11 million tickets were sold for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with over 3,000 contactless terminals installed at the Olympic Park to service its visitors.

So what mark did London 2012 leave on payment methods and how did last year’s event in Rio take the ‘cashless’ Games concept and develop it?

The result

In total, a rather underwhelming 150,000 payments at Olympic venues around London and across the country were made using contactless technology, representing just 15 per cent of transactions under £20 – the limit for contactless payments at the time. However, big retailers and transport authorities were taking note of how much quicker the technology allowed payments to be made in areas with a high concentration of people.

I would argue that while the transaction numbers at London 2012 may not have been mind-blowing, you cannot underestimate the important role this mother-of-all trial runs had in influencing a variety of industries to take note of contactless as a viable payment option.

Before the end of 2012, retail giant Marks & Spencer had installed contactless terminals across a number of its locations, while large supermarket chains began trialling it in selected stores. At the end of the year, London bus services had adopted contactless technology, going completely cashless by July 2014, the same month in which the underground network also gave the option to go contactless.

Since then, we have seen the number of contactless transactions in Britain soar. £2.32 billion was spent through contactless in 2014 – this increased to £7.75 billion in 2015 and £25 billion in 2016. In this time, we have also seen a rise in the maximum allowed spend from £20 to £30 – enough to cover the average supermarket spend, according to the UK Cards Association. While Transport for London is often heralded as the main driver behind the adoption of contactless, particularly in London, it is the Olympic Games that arguably paved the way.

Going cashless in Rio

At last year’s Rio Olympic Games, the push for consumers and participants to embrace contactless and go cashless went one step further, with 4,000 terminals installed across the city and a variety of wearable payment solutions provided to the athletes within the Olympic village.

Team GB, for example, was given wristbands for 366 athletes and 150 support crew that eliminated the need for them to carry cash or cards. If you were one of the few sponsored ‘Visa athletes’, you were lucky enough to receive a payment ring – a waterproof, battery-free form of payment cleverly disguised as a piece of jewellery.

The push for cashless had an added significance in Rio, with street crime – robbery and pickpocketing in particular – being in the spotlight in the lead up to the Games. By going cashless, visitors drastically reduced the risk of losing money in the event of theft.

This wariness is nothing new to the Brazilian population, which has always been willing to give alternative payment pilot projects a try. These include contactless in 2013 – which is now accepted at well over two million POS terminals across the country – NFC, and mobile payment technology; particularly popular due to the relatively high risk of robbery that accompanies carrying cash and the increasing difficulty of withdrawing it in convenient locations. In fact, supermarkets and petrol stations often refuse to install ATMs due to the risk of criminal damage and theft – sometimes with the help of trusty dynamite – and merchants themselves are reluctant to keep large amounts of cash in their registers due to security concerns.

Naturally, cautious merchants are increasingly focused on alternatives to cash. Thanks to financial institutions in Brazil promoting better security practices, even informal street food stalls and merchandise sellers on the beach are able to rent card terminals for just a few Reals per month – a low outlay compared to the potential losses and a huge boost for them at the Games.

While it remains to be seen how many transactions were made through contactless methods at the Rio Games, I would be surprised to see anything other than a significant rise compared to London. As for the long-term impact, the persistent nudging towards contactless and mobile payments, coupled with the obvious security benefits, can only serve to accelerate Brazil’s adoption of the technology.

Whether driven by transport or security it’s clear contactless is here to stay, but we should not understate the significant impact that the last two Olympic Games have had on the adoption of contactless payment   technology in their respective regions.


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