Shaking off Olympic infections

Athletes and the British government react to advisor who claims the handshake should be limited during Olympic Games.

    UK Prime Minister David Cameron and London Major Boris Johnson shake hands during Paralympic Day [GALLO/GETTY]

    The British Olympic Association's chief medical officer said athletes should avoid physical contact while greeting rivals and visiting dignitaries at this summer's games because it could spread germs.

    The British government, though, is perplexed at the warning from Dr. Ian McCurdie.

    "It goes without saying that we should all wash our hands regularly to keep them clean and prevent spreading bugs,'' the Department of Health said in a statement.

    "But there's no reason why people shouldn't shake hands at the Olympics.''

    Athletes also seemed unconvinced.

    "Maybe I shook too many hands in Beijing"

    Triathlete Hollie Avil

    On Twitter, Olympic champion rower Zac Purchase said that the advice seemed a "bit pointless unless u r going to run around with disinfectant 4 every surface you come into contact with.''

    Triathlete Hollie Avil, who was forced to pull out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics after picking up a virus, quipped: "Maybe I shook too many hands in Beijing.''

    During a briefing with a small group of reporters, McCurdie had said strong personal hygiene could prove to be the difference between success and failure.

    Asked if the traditional British greeting of a handshake should be off-limits, McCurdie said: "I think, within reason, yes."

    "I think that is not such a bad thing to advise,'' he said.

    "The difficulty is when you have got some reception and you have got a line of about 20 people you have never met before who you have got to shake hands with.''

    McCurdie had pointed out that the Olympic village environment could be a "pretty hostile one"' for infections.

    Minimising risk or unsociable?

    Britain's minimum target is to match its fourth-place finish at the Beijing Olympics four years ago when it brought home 47 medals.

    "Almost certainly, I believe, the greatest threat to performance is illness and possibly injury,'' McCurdie said.

    "At an Olympic Games or any major event the performance impact of becoming ill or even feeling a little bit ill can be significant.

    "Do shake hands, do use hand foam, do wash your hands, do reduce the risk of catching a bug. It's all common sense"

    British Olympic Association tweet

    "Essentially we are talking about minimising risk of illness and optimising resistance. Minimising exposure and getting bugs into the system and being more robust to manage those should that happen. Hand hygiene is it. It is all about hand hygiene.''

    Will the 10,000 visiting Olympians and hundreds of dignitaries see it that way?

    Britain's authority on etiquette, Debrett's, isn't so sure.

    "It is the normal English greeting,'' etiquette adviser Liz Wyse said.

    "It is a bid of a sad thing if people are worried about shaking hands in case it spreads disease. It's not very sociable.

    "In the UK, the handshake is the normal greeting. I find (the BOA advice) a bit odd.''

    The BOA tried to distance itself from its chief medical officer's advice on Tuesday, by tweeting to athletes: "Do shake hands, do use hand foam, do wash your hands, do reduce the risk of catching a bug. It's all common sense...''



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