“I used to gargle with salt water every night,” said Sara Studebaker-Hall, a former United States Olympian in the biathlon. “My mom is a nurse, and she said there was research that showed that would help. I was, like, great.”
Arturs Darznieks, a Latvian luger, eats cloves of raw garlic, a habit he swears does not bother his girlfriend. Or his teammates, who have taken to eating cloves of garlic, too.
“We are all stinky in the room,” he said after his second test run down the course on Thursday. “But it’s good for your immune system.”
Science is not convinced. James Gern, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied immunology, was skeptical of many of the cold-ducking practices used by Olympians. He endorsed the basics, such as sleeping, hand-washing and reducing stress. Eating raw garlic? Maybe it just keeps people at bay, he guessed. The athlete idea he liked the most belonged to Lehtonen, the guy who yanked his children out of kindergarten.
“The most efficient spreaders of rhinovirus are kids,” Gern said. “They are totally unhygienic and they need a lot of care. If you live with a 2-year-old who has a cold, just go get yourself a box of tissues.”
The inherent problem is that winter is a cold-catching season (and flu, too, especially this year), which means the Winter Games are a more infection-focused affair than their summer counterparts. And even before the recent outbreak of norovirus, the Olympics in Pyeongchang seemed determined to turn everyone into a germaphobe.
At Incheon Airport near Seoul, travelers were greeted by a placard about the Madagascar Plague — turn yourself into the quarantine office was the gist — right before walking through a body-heat detector that flags fevers. On the way to the baggage carousel, a female voice on a recorded message offered a lengthy health-related public service announcement that included the word “vomiting.”
Koreans walking around with white face masks are not an uncommon sight here; it is hard to tell if they are contagious or fretting about contagion. There are signs all over the Games with instructions for how to cough properly.
Into your sleeve, please.
Olympians don’t need the pointers. Many are acutely aware that they are especially vulnerable during the Games. There are athletes coming together from all over the world, some bearing viruses, placed in close quarters, eating in huge cafeterias with serve-yourself buffets.
“I don’t touch the big spoon unless I’m wearing gloves,” said Johanna Matintalo, another Finnish cross-country skier.
Matintalo is proof that any contest with the rhinovirus is a gamble, even for someone who bets with care. She caught a cold a week before the Games began and has suffered a fate that is familiar to her peers: She’s been banished, at least partially.
“I have my own apartment,” she said. “I should be with my four teammates, in this apartment with five rooms, but they want to wait to make sure that I’m 100 percent.”
The team physician comes and takes a swab from her nose, which is then tested in a piece of equipment that Matintalo enthusiastically described as “very cool.” She predicted she would move back in with roommates in another day or two.
The Australian team takes a more pitiless approach. The 20 or so members of the squad who have been deemed medal contenders have been hived off to live in what a spokesman called a “sub site” that puts plenty of distance between them and the lesser members of the team.
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