LONDON — The British government on Tuesday rejected a warning by the Olympic team’s top doctor that athletes should avoid shaking hands at the London Games.
The British Olympic Association’s chief medical officer had 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.”
The BOA tried to distance itself from McCurdie’s advice 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…”
And the U.S. team, which will send the most athletes to the games, is issuing no warnings about handshakes.
“We always encourage our athletes at the Olympic Games to embrace the Olympic spirit and meet, greet and interact with as many different athletes from as many nationalities as possible,” USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said.
British athletes also seemed unconvinced.
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 recent briefing with a small group of reporters, McCurdie 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 added. “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.
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.
“Essentially we are talking about minimizing risk of illness and optimizing resistance. Minimizing 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 spreadsdisease. It’s not very sociable.
“Obviously, there are concerns about keeping in a tip-top physical condition, but it does seem a bit extreme to me.”
Wyse describes the “common firm handshake” as using the right hand and a couple of pumps.
“If somebody extends their hand in a friendly greeting and you don’t give your hand back because of hygiene concerns that could look very rude,” she said.
British athletes will share rooms in the Olympic village, where they will also dine with athletes from 204 competing nations.
“Being at an Olympic Games means you are normally inside a bubble and so there is effectively quite a limited number of people that you interact with when you are away in another country,” McCurdie said. “In London we do not believe that is going to be the case. The variety of people the athletes and support staff are going to interact with is going to be huge.”
AP National Writer Eddie Pells in Colorado contributed to this report.