NEWS
03/05/2012 07:33 EST | Updated 05/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Britain advises its athletes to avoid shaking hands at Olympics to avoid illness spreading

LONDON - Don't shake on it, you might catch something.

Britain's Olympic athletes have been advised to avoid shaking hands with rivals and visiting dignitaries at the London Games. But while etiquette experts fear that could look rude, the 550-strong British team will just be following official medical advice.

The British Olympic Association is concerned about illness spreading through the camp and thwarting the host country's bid for glory.

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

And BOA chief medical officer Dr. Ian McCurdie believes 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, Dr. 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."

Dr. McCurdie points out that the Olympic Village environment could be a "pretty hostile one" for infections.

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

But with the 10,000 visiting Olympians and hundreds more dignitaries see it like that?

Britain's authority on etiquette, Debrett's, is not 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.

"Obviously there are concerns about keeping in a tip top physical condition but (the BOA advice) 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. "In the U.K. the handshake is the normal greeting. I find (the BOA advice) a bit odd."

British athletes will share rooms, while eating with athletes from the 204 other 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," Dr. 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."