LONDON - In the 1980s, Visa and American Express forged an intra-national oneupsmanship blood-rivalry for the ages, the intensity of which Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte would somehow fail to live up to three decades later. Like America’s champion swimmers, the battles of these two corporate athletes take place in arenas all over the earth, and their competition venue tends to be the Olympics. 

Back then, Visa was considered boring stay-at-home plastic money; the connoisseur cardmembers of American Express were the real jet set. In the book “Olympic Turnaround,” former IOC insider Michael Payne details how Visa turned that perception around with the help of the Games.

In the credit card world, American Express dominated Asia. Carl Pascarella, CEO of Visa Asia Pacific, was anxious to change things. He had ambitious plans to open up China, Japan and Korea, and the 1988 Games in Seoul offered the perfect platform to improve Visa’s image and market share. The Olympics provided Visa with the opportunity to develop its first coordinated marketing campaign. In 1987, when Visa launched its Olympic marketing campaign, it was the number three card in Asia. Within three years, it overtook Amex to be the market leader.

Visa launched its first Olympic advertising campaign in Calgary with a series of hard-hitting advertisements that said if you were going to the Games, “bring your camera and your Visa card, because the Olympics don’t take place all the time, and this time they don’t take American Express.” 

…On seeing the ads, American Express went ballistic, claiming that the adverts were misleading. As soon as Visa saw American Express’ reaction, it knew that it was on to a winner… Consumers who were aware of Visa’s Olympic sponsorship had dramatically better views of visa, doubling their perception of Visa as a good corporate citizen.

Visa also provided the IOC with a positive case study at a critical time. This was the time The Olympic Program (TOP) was getting started, and the improvement in sales and recognition spurred other companies to sign on as elite, exclusive corporate partners.

The collateral damage in all this was MasterCard, still years away from its three-sentence “priceless” campaign. Once Visa had Olympic ticketing sewn up, the “for everything else…” part of the pitch didn’t really ring true. The Olympics don’t take MasterCard either.

For reasons I’ve never taken time to examine, all of the cards in my wallet have circles in the corner. I don’t have a Visa. This is an important part of the narrative only because I came to London without any tickets. If one attempted to buy tickets from outside the United Kingdom, Ticketmaster’s official website would whisk you off to an authorized tour provider that packaged premium tickets, airfare and accommodation on a substantial markup. I did that for Athens, and never again.

This time, it’s what I didn’t do that I now sorely regret. I didn’t go to Target on the way to the airport and buy a Visa gift card, just in case I had to go the official route. I thought there would be tickets on the street, because in my experience, there always seem to be. But this time, there are no intricate sales networks run by shady east Europeans. The police have cracked down hard on touting, smashing international ticket-swapping networks and making examples of poor saps who are trying to unload extras.

There’s a black market, but it’s too far underground to see from the venues. I hung out at Horse Guards Parade this evening before the evening beach volleyball session, just to check out the scene. There were bobbies, soldiers and pink-clad stewards everywhere. Anyone holding their finger up to the sky, in the manner of old-time Grateful Dead fans desireing to be “miracled in,” were given a long, menacing stare from an authority figure. So I guess Visa and Ticketmaster have won this round. 

England is far, far behind us Americans when it comes to prepaid financial instruments. The U.S. had celebrity-sponsored fee magnets years ago. After asking around, I found out the only option for a disposable Visa is a company called V3. They’re found in the gift card rack, but their goal is to sell virtual card numbers that folks use to bid on things at eBay. And their temporary Visa numbers have a top limit of £25, but you can combine them online to create bigger balances.

So there I was with a pile of gift cards, scraping off silver PIN guards, trying to keep the numbers straight, when my housemate took pity on me. “Try UKash,” he offered. “I heard you can transfer it to V3 cards. It’s available at any PayPoint station.”

I went to a local pharmacist with the PayPoint sign out front. “We don’t have that,” the middle-aged Indian woman behind the counter told me crossly. I knocked again. “But the website said…” She exhaled. “Are you buying it for you, or someone else?”

UKash vouchers are 19-digit codes designed to purchase items online, but it seems that the people who use them don’t want others to know they’re using UKash. It’s a currency of choice on gambling and adult websites. I was told that vouchers are exchanged in IRC chats to pay for things even more unmentionable. It turns out that my £10 test purchase didn’t transfer to V3, as the two companies don’t do business anymore. Visa’s exclusivity was sending me into a seedier world than that of black-market ticket touting. 

* * *

Even if you do have a Visa this time, they probably won’t take it. This country has reveled in tremendous athletic performances from the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy and Jessica Ennis, but the true shared experience that most Britons are going to take away from these London 2012 Games is the agony of watching a spinning star on a white screen.

After the overallocation of tickets to National Olympic Committees and the “Games Family” resulted in an embarrassing number of empty seats early on, an engineered clawback of ducats has ensured that London-area venues are nearly completely full now. It’s great to see the kind of Olympic fever that brings about nearly full capacity; this is the first Olympics I’ve been to since Sydney 2000 where that’s been the case. 

The process for purchasing tickets online has been plagued with errors and crashes, but there are no presumably 20th Century concepts like “cash purchases” or “box office sales.” Everything’s being run through the website that official London 2012 supplier Ticketmaster has created.

Now that the Games have begun and people like me are descending on the city from other countries and entering the ticket pool, it’s been a psychologically damaging experience for all involved. Imagine searching for tickets, noting that £55 nosebleed seats are available for the Sunday night athletics session at Olympic Stadium. You click “Reserve Tickets,” and the following screen appears.

For the next 15 minutes, as the estimate countdown clock ticks down to 11, then back up to 12, then nine, then 11 again, and finally down to zero, Olympic fever engulfs your heart. You might imagine watching Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake battle it out in the 100m. You might imagine that 30 years from now, you will be able to tell your grandchildren that you were there. But, like sperms to eggs, there’s an unseen process by which thousands of competitors jockey and hustle for the same prize. And then your li’l swimmer loses, because this pops up:

If you endure this experience, once or twice or five times over, your heart is ready for a career as an Olympic football. There’s already a seven-step program for those who need help coping with the pain. At the very least, a sensible sort would throw themselves back into the arms of Ukranian organized crime. They don’t toy with anybody’s emotions, they just rip you off and go away.

I spent two hours today at a Costa coffeeshop near Charing Cross refreshing the screen, clicking “Search,” deflating once the only available tickets are the £450 AA-level ones (they don’t tell you that until two clicks into the process), and finding myself getting very English, glass half-broken and all that. Sometimes, a ticket at an affordable price point would be shown as available, the 15-minute request process would take place, the “sorry” message would come up, and the tickets for the same event at the same level are still shown as ripe for picking. 

And around 11:13 pm London time, with a flat white and my fake Visa, it happened. Ticketmaster’s countdown timer expired, and an order screen popped up. For a volleyball ticket. One volleyball ticket. I’ll always remember that moment when I knew I’d make it into a venue. The colors, the lights. James Blunt was playing on the radio. Religion works this way sometimes: you keep repeating the pattern until benevolence happens. For two exclusive partners given God-like powers by the IOC and LOCOG, gauche religious metaphors will have to do.

(Photo: Getty Images)