Sports Law • Risk Management

Upholding Olympic Values with Handshakes: Managing the Risk of Spreading Illness

Should Olympic athletes risk the spread of germs and shake hands with other athletes at the Olympic Games in London? Chief medical officer of the British Olympic Association suggested that athletes not shake each others’ hands and was quoted as saying, “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 the risk of illness and optimizing resistance. Minimizing exposure and getting bugs into the system and being more robust to manage those should that happen.” The advice of not shaking hands was rejected by the British government and so athletes will be free to shake hands, which is more consistent with the spirit of the Games.

The Olympic values of respect and friendship could hardly be accomplished if athletes refuse to greet each other with handshakes. It is interesting to consider that one explanation of the origin of the handshake was that Kings and knights in Medieval Europe would extend their hands to one another to demonstrate that they were unarmed. When the world’s athletes compete against each other in the Olympic Games, the athletes essentially approach each other with respect and friendship, even if their countries are at war. Shaking hands is symbolic of Olympism and is consistent with the Olympic Charter.

On the other hand, athletes must protect their health if they are to perform well after lifetimes of training. Clearly, the only way to reconcile the interest of preserving health and maintaining the spirit of the Olympics is for participants to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly, to avoid touching their faces, and to make every effort to eat and sleep well in order to strengthen their immunity. If someone feels that they may have contracted a virus, in that case, it is reasonable to politely tell the other person that they do not want to risk spreading illness by shaking hands. The other person will appreciate that and Olympism will be achieved.