The 550-strong British team has been advised by its top doctor to avoid shaking hands with rivals and visiting dignitaries at the London Games this summer.
The reason: Olympic germs could cost Olympic gold.
And while etiquette experts fear the host country could look rude, the British Olympic Association is far more concerned with illness spreading through the camp and thwarting the 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.”
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.”
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.
“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. “In the U.K., the handshake is the normal greeting. I find (the BOA advice) a bit odd.”
The U.S. team is issuing no such 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 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.
Rob Harris can be reached at www.twitter.com/RobHarrisUK
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