As British athletes are advised to refuse handshakes in case they are infected with a bug which ruins their dreams of victory, Channel 4 News speaks to a microbiologist to assess the claim.
For centuries it has been a greeting ritual, practised as far back as ancient Greece and thought to have emerged as a gesture of peace to demonstrate that the hand holds no weapons.
It now takes various guises, and has been used to assess how aggressive, open or weak a person may be depending on the amount of pressure they use. Outside the UK it is sometimes regarded as a classic symbol of the British stiff upper lip, reserved and safe compared with the continental single, double or triple kiss on the cheek, or the Middle Eastern three-times hug, yet continues to feature in all walks of life, from diplomatic gatherings to a meeting down at the pub.
But the latest advice from Dr Ian McCurdie, the British Olympic Association chief medical officer, is for competing athletes in Team GB to stay at the top of their game by refusing the hand if offered, wherever possible.
“Hand hygeine is it. It is all about hand hygiene.” Dr Ian McCurdie, British Olympic Association chief medical officer.
It is advice which microbiologists agree is probably sound, but risks presenting leaving the UK with a reputation as “the country which gave the world the cold shoulder” and could end up being something of an etiquette faux-pas.
Meanwhile, no advice appears to have been offered for athletes competing in contact sports such as Greco Roman wrestling, or for the relay, or as to whether they should celebrate with a high-five, a giant hug or a pat on the back.
Asked whether shaking hands should be off-limits, Dr McCurdie said: “I think, within reason, yes. 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.
“Within reason, if you do and have to shake hands with people, so long as you understand that regular handwashing and/or also using hand foam can help reduce the risk – that would be a good point.”
He added: “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.”
The advice was given as part of a bundle of health recommendations which the British Olympic Association has looked at ahead of the games, in which the 550-strong team will share rooms with each other and eat with 204 other nationalities who compete.
But while Dr Anthony Hilton, reader in microbiology at Aston University, agreed it was probably sound advice, it comes at the risk of the UK presenting itself at the biggest event in its recent history as “killjoys”.
“We don’t want to be the country that gave the rest of the world the cold shoulder.” Dr Anthony Hilton, Society for General Microbiology
He said: “There is some background to why hand to hand contact is involved in spreading disease and anything to minimise that can only be a good thing. It’s a high risk activity.
“But I think it falls apart a little in that if the final stage of the process, in which the recipient [of the handshake] has to put their hands in their mouth, or in their eyes, or in a wound, to be infected, is not carried out, that mitigates the risk.
“The final stage is important. So if they take hand hygeine seriously, and wash their hands afterwards, it should be all right.”
Dr McCurdie’s advice echoes comments made by US tycoon, Donald Trump, who has described handshakes as “barbaric”. He once described it as “the curse of American society”, declaring that he would never touch teachers because “they have 17,000 germs per square inch on their desks”.
Dr Hilton, of the Society for General Microbiology, admitted that there are cultural dimensions to be considered with the advice.
“Anything athletes can do to minimise risk is worth doing.” Dr Anthony Hilton, Society for General Microbiology
He said: “There are obviously cultural and societal and social norms and perceptions. I suppose we don’t, on the global stage, want to be seen as unhospitable.
“From purely a performance point of view, anything athletes can do to minimise risk is worth doing, but at the same time, it’s a celebration of humanity and we don’t want to be seen as being the killjoys of the world.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact of how it might be perceived by others, and we don’t want to be the country that gave the rest of the world the cold shoulder.”