Is it ok to not shake hands after a competition?

Ways to consider the significance of simple gestures in sport

Look at the winner after they cross the line. Did he or she stick around to congratulate the other competitors, or immediately go for a victory lap? Check out the medalists. Did they start lining up for pictures while athletes were still coming across the line? Were any hands shook, fists bumped, shoulders or backs patted? Who did, and to whom?

International and professional sport tends to draw most of the attention when it comes to such behaviors, or lack thereof. Most recently, a Ukrainian women’s tennis professional has been in the spotlight for refusing to shake the hand of Russian and Belarussian competitors following matches, in a highly transparent protest against the ongoing war against her country. Other protests have been less geopolitical, such as the British swimmer that refused to shake the hand or stand on the world championships podium next to a Chinese swimmer that had previously been caught for doping, and was awaiting trial for a new suspected doping infraction at the time of the competition.

There are a plethora of customary gestures to fellow competitors and officials in sport. In fencing, it is an upright raising of the sword tip while facing an opponent or judge. In judo and many other martial arts, it’s a bow at the waist. There are line-ups in many team sports where competitors will shake hands and even trade clothing items. These were historically important on the field of play, and sometimes obligatory, having been written into a sport’s rules. This is something that postulate 2 addresses: The rules of the contest reflect its ideals, and vice versa.

But what are these ideals, really? And why are some gestures so indicative of them?

The ideal gesture

One such ideal is that competition, and participation, in itself is not unimportant. If we had no deeper engagement in the outcome of a competition, and merely saw it as simple amusement, or even just a job that needed to be done, we wouldn’t need to place any real importance on it. But if we do, we need to look at our competitors in the face and know that they do, too. The simple gestures that we make during and after the competition are a sign of that. Both parties are in agreement that we are here for an important purpose. It might not be deadly serious in all cases, but it is never trivial. It is an agreement that we are challenging each other on equal terms to the best of our abilities. We both understand the stakes of the game. We understand each other, as athletes. Not providing such a gesture suggests that one or both parties are not on the same page, and don’t understand the importance of what they are doing.

Another perhaps more obvious ideal is that of respect for one’s opponent. Postulate 1 in many ways encompasses this, although it might not seem obvious at first by the way it is formulated. Essentially, when we enter a contest, we are doing the inviting. Sure, there might be a federation or association organizing an event or schedule, but we as athletes are the only ones that decide if we’re going to challenge someone. There is absolutely nobody forcing us to face off against someone that we do not respect, for whatever reason. Once we agree to the terms of the contest and voluntarily walk onto the field of play, however, we are showing respect to our competitors. We are willing to defeat them, or to be defeated by them, and accept the outcome without shame, guilt, or arrogance. We’re there to challenge each other and grow from the experience. Shaking hands is a sign of appreciation for that.

Still, we might feel for some reason that we don’t respect another competitor – either before or after the competition. In the first case, we may have competed against them before and know that they don’t play honorably. Or perhaps we don’t like their attitude, their political stance, or some other issue they bring with them to the competition. Regardless of reason, the question we must ask ourselves is then, why did we get onto the field of play with them? Competing against someone, as we mentioned above, is a sign of respect. Can we just leave it at that, without having to make any other overt gestures?

In the second case, something might have happened during the match or race that made us lose respect for that individual. How should we show our disapproval? Here, a cool mind and a few moments of reflection can help. Was it an infraction or penalty for excessive behavior in the heat of the moment? Was it just emotion that likely got the better of them? Or was it deeper than that – a breach of contract between competitors, where some ideal was undermined? Did it feel like they were there to demean or humiliate others, or just generally piss on the parade?

A fair shake?

Being part of a Society where everyone is potentially a member doesn’t mean that all behavior is acceptable. To truly understand sport, one needs to find one’s place in it, and also understand that others might be in a different place. The common ground is, however, respect for your other competitors – through competition. If we decide to conduct or omit gestures that portray respect, we also need to think about what we are doing to our sport and our Society at large. Are we promoting understanding and camaraderie among people that are out there giving it their all – just like us? Are we judging what we believe a person is like when the game is over? Or are we just calling out someone that isn’t an athlete, that likely shouldn’t be there?

Regardless of our reasons, we should strive to act definitively: compete against and shake hands with a competitor, or don’t compete against that person at all. Any ”grey zone” in between is usually uncomfortable and awkward, and likely one that doesn’t serve our sport, or our Society, well.