If you’re looking for a snapshot of what it is to be British, then look no further. In any other country, if a nation’s representatives at an Olympic Games were told not to shake hands during the greatest show on Earth, it would arguably be a psychological tactic employed to show your rivals no mercy in that elusive quest to bring home gold.
But that’s not the case in Britain. The 550 athletes have been advised to avoid shaking hands … out of fear of getting sick. Ian McCurdie, chief medical officer of the British Olympic Association (BOA), has said that illness is a considerable threat in the “pretty hostile environment” of the Olympic Village.
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And does that mean athletes should avoid shaking hands? “I think, within reason, yes,” McCurdie said. “I think that is not such a bad thing to advise. 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.”
But the (possibly) unintended upshot of this no-shaking policy is that Britain’s famed politeness could see its reputation ruined. “It is the normal English greeting,” Liz Wyse at Debrett’s (Britain’s authority on etiquette) told the Associated Press. “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.” Wyse went on to add that, “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. In the U.K., the handshake is the normal greeting. I find (the BOA advice) a bit odd.”
But Team USA doesn’t share Britain’s concern. “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. And the British government doesn’t agree, either. “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 ultimate target for Britain is to at least match its fourth-place finish at the Beijing Olympics, when it won 47 medals. But how will the thousands of Olympians and many dignitaries feel about being shunned? The answer seems so clear, we can all shake on it.