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“Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out: The Rise and Horrendous Fall of Marathon Legend Jim Peters” by Rob Hadgraft

As an athletics fan, I always find it frustrating when people talk about Paula Radcliffe as if the most significant thing she ever achieved was to do a gingerbread man halfway round the London Marathon. Or they talk about her as a failure because she never won an Olympic medal. Her world record is extraordinary, but life can be very cruel to remarkable people. We only like to remember the times when people messed up. Just ask Michael Fish.

Hypocrite that I am, my knowledge of mid-20th century British marathon champ Jim Peters extended purely to one incident; he was the guy in the 1952 Olympic marathon whom Emil Zatopek (see review) asked “is the pace a bit too slow?”. When Peters jokingly said yes, Zatopek responded “oh, right” and zoomed off into Olympic history. Peters himself dropped out of the race.

What a shame. As I learnt from Rob Hadgraft’s definitive biography (see my reviews of his other books about Alf Shrubb and Deerfoot), Jim Peters was arguably Britain’s greatest athletics star of the immediate post-war era. A world record holder, he was a man who transformed how people trained for the marathon. He was a contemporary of Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, but unlike those university men, he was a working class lad from East London who saved up his money in Depression-era Britain to buy his first plimsolls from Woolworths, and balanced his training regime with full-time work as an optician.

Peters’ story illustrates how some athletes take time to find their true distance. Prior to the Second World War, he showed promise but didn’t set the running scene alight. Following the war he won a major 6 mile race, but what struck me reading Plimsolls On was that Peters was not a Steve Prefontaine (see related review), winning every race in sight. In the 1947 National Cross-Country he only placed 62nd. He did make it to the 1948 Olympics, but finished 8th in the 10,000m final, well behind emerging star Zatopek. The book makes you wonder how much of his shorter-distance talent was wasted by the 6-year lay-off caused by the war, as well as how many potential stars of the sport never had the opportunity to shine.

His failure in 1948 led Peters to retire from the sport, much to the delight of his wife, who wanted him to focus on being an optician and raising their son. Yet the temptation to return was always there, and his former coach, Jonny Johnston persuaded him to give the marathon a shot. He never looked back. On his debut at the Polytechnic Marathon in 1951 Peters hadn’t bothered to taper, and shocked the onlookers and “expert commentators” by surging at break-neck pace throughout the race, just as 2008 Olympic winner Sammy Wanjiru would do more than 50 years later to much acclaim about how the Kenyan had changed the sport. Peters broke the British record in his first race and the world record (which was then 2hrs 25mins) a year later, ending a period of dominance by Japanese and Korean runners.

Peters would go on to race several marathons a year and set 4 further records, taking his marathon to 2hrs 17mins. He became the most talked-about athlete in Britain, capable of generating headlines in the News of the World. His weekly mileage of 100miles+ was frankly insane for a man doing a full time job, and he did it all in flimsy plimsolls. His training methods represented a sea-change in thinking, moving away from the opinions of early 20th century ultra-runner Arthur Newton, who advocated lots of long, slow running to build stamina. Instead Peters never did what he called a “jog trot” in training. He only ran fast. His standard 10mile training run in Epping Forest was usually completed in around 55minutes, about 8 minutes faster than my own race PB!

The 1952 Olympics went wrong for Peters. He had a horrendous journey, which included illness, a howling draught in the plane, and the same plane being struck by lightning during the flight. However he went on to win several more races and come second in the Boston marathon in 1954. His goal though became to take gold for Britain at the Empire Games in Vancouver later that year.

The Empire Games was the predecessor of today’s Commonwealth Games, and was an opportunity for athletes from Canada, Britain, New Zealand and others connected by a common British heritage to compete. Peters was favourite to win the marathon. In classic “I don’t taper style” he ran in the 6 mile race the week beforehand, just as Galen Rupp ran in the 10,000m before taking Bronze in the Rio Olympics in 2016. The day of the marathon was swelteringly hot, but this was a time when races had few water stops, and in Vancouver they didn’t even have the wet sponges that Peters usually expected. The British team were also suspicious that the course was too long, although their concerns was overruled.

Peters took a comfortable lead. At 25 miles he was 3 miles ahead of the nearest competitor. Then tragedy set in. As he entered the stadium he collapsed with just 380 yards to go. He got up, then collapsed again. Repeatedly. All carried out in front of a horrified crowd that included the Duke of Edinburgh. He finally crossed what he thought was the finishing line and then was pulled away to get help. In a cruel twist, the finishing line for the marathon was actually 200 yards further on, and he was disqualified from the race, which was eventually won by Scotsman Joe McGhee, who arrived in the stadium 15 minutes later, rather surprised to hear that he was the winner.

Team-mate Chris Brasher would later tell the media that Peters’ brain temperature was recorded at 107 degrees, meaning that his brain was literally close to cooking. Another medically trained team-mate stayed behind to watch over Peters, and so it came to pass that about a week later Jim Peters and Dr Roger Bannister stepped off a plane in London to tell their deeply contrasting stories to reporters. Bannister had won the “mile of the century” against Australian John Landy; Peters had narrowly survived death, and retired instantly from competitive running.

It would later transpire that the Vancouver course was indeed too long, and when re-measured it was found to be close to 27 miles. Peters had already completed the marathon distance before his collapse in the stadium. Some speculate that if he’d known that he had a 3-mile lead, he would have slowed down and not over-exerted himself in the heat. Others disagree, saying that Peters’ flaw was that he only knew one way to race: eyeballs out.

Peters died in 1999, but today he is remembered in other ways. The first Briton to cross the line of the London Marathon wins the Jim Peters Trophy. The most notable winner of the trophy? Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s most remarkable marathoner since Peters. But yes, it is hard to forget she did a poo mid-race.

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The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory” by Richard Moore

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man cannot be both academically bright and good at sports. This is why my student dorm-mate Dan Dan the Ladies’ Man was so infuriating. Not only did he play for multiple teams across several sports, but he was a straight-A student with aftershave-advert good looks to boot. As his nickname suggests, he had an easy manner with the opposite sex and was rarely without a girlfriend. He was charming too, and a genuinely nice man to be around. Bastard.

One day, my friend John and I hit upon what we called “The Deductive Method”. Following a marathon session of Championship Manager, we had the revelation that all men must be born with 100 points, which are then allocated to brainpower, looks, athleticism etc. In Dan’s case we realised that he had spent his points so highly in virtually all areas that there was only one inescapable conclusion. Below the waist, he had to be built like a Ken-doll.

In the case of Jamaican sprinting, the Deductive Method would suggest that being very fast is a trade-off for the disadvantages of poverty and violence that plague the island. However, others who are less familiar with my personal brand of pseudo-science believe that there may be another explanation for all those medals: drugs. In The Bolt Supremacy, Richard Moore (see review of his earlier book “The Dirtiest Race in History”) visits Jamaica to explore the running culture for himself and see if he can find evidence of cheating. He sets out with some understandable reservations about Jamaica’s success. The 10 fastest 100m times in history are held by 5 men – Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Johan Blake, Asafa Powell and Justin Gatlin. 3 of these are Jamaicans (Bolt, Blake and Johan), and of the 5 men only Bolt has never tested positive for banned substances. Some think that he has simply been better at beating the testers.

But is this the whole story? Both Blake and Powell claim they tested positive for stimulants found in supplements they believed were legal. Americans have typically tested positive for steroids or testosterone, which have more proven performance-enhancing benefits. The Jamaican media typically takes great offense at doping allegations and the publicity surrounding failed tests – of course they do. They excuse their runners by saying they are guilty of negligence and carelessness rather than deliberate cheating. The argument goes that this small impoverished island lacks the infrastructure for systematic doping, and that the teams around their athletes lack sophisticated awareness of the contents of sports supplements.

Whether you agree or not, the strong sense of national pride in its runners displayed by the Jamaican media provides some insight into the island’s success. This is a country where the Prime Minister was personally involved in bringing a young Usain Bolt from his rural village to the capital, Kingston. A country where athletics is bigger than football. A country where the biggest event in the sporting calendar is a high-school track and field championship.

“Champs”, as it is known, is the centre of Jamaican athletics. Schools from across the island compete over several days, and winners become national heroes and media stars. One school in particular (Calabar) has an extraordinary roll-call of alumni, including multiple Olympians and world record holders. Track and field is the equivalent of American high-school football; it is at the heart of many communities, and the coaches are professionals, not teachers leading physical education classes in their spare time.

One explanation of Jamaica’s “sprint factory” is therefore that it is a culture that celebrates athletics to an unusual degree. In The Sports Gene (see review), David Epstein suggests that in another country Bolt would have been funnelled into a career as a basketball player, but as a Jamaican he aspired to be a runner. Are there physiological explanations as well? Genes may also play a part in Bolt’s success. Many Jamaicans are descended from slaves, and one theory suggests that because only the toughest slaves survived the brutal journey from Africa, today’s Jamaicans have been self-selected for strength. In addition, Bolt, Blake and many other stars are from an area of the island where slaves revolted against their masters and successfully fought for their freedom. Some argue there are therefore “warrior genes” in this region’s population of just 78,000 that explain their physical prowess. Finally, a statistically significant and curious number of top sprinters are the youngest of several brothers. No-one is quite sure why this makes a difference, but it does.

Genetics and family history may therefore be a factor. However, world-class sprinting is a sport about individuals, and it is individuals who have brought about the island’s success. As much as anything, Moore’s book is a series of meetings with remarkable Jamaicans. There is a chapter where he interviews Bolt’s dad, and we learn that he used to police Usain’s school attendance and make sure he wasn’t skipping class and training to play video games (“I would strap him”). We meet Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, arguably the greatest female sprinter of all time, whose humble nature means she lacks the world-dominating profile of Bolt. Fraser-Pryce’s story is a genuinely touching one of determination and using her talent to pull herself and her family out of the ghetto…and opening a hairdressing salon in the process.

We also encounter the man who is perhaps the architect of Jamaica’s success. Dennis Johnson returned from a US college scholarship in the early 1960s and decided that he was going to teach Jamaicans how to run fast. Bizarrely, he got sponsorship from a cigarette company and drove around the country in his Rothmans van on a one-man roadshow to educate a generation of runners and coaches about technique and sprinting mechanics. Today’s two top Jamaican coaches – Stephen Francis and Glenn Mills – were both attendees. We learn a lot about the rivalry between these two men, including their uncanny eye for talent. Asafa Powell was not a strong performer at Champs, but Francis spotted his raw potential.

Bolt is an entirely different story, as his talent was evident from an early age. For those who think he sprang out of nowhere in 2008, Moore shows how Jamaica had been waiting for Bolt to make his mark for some time. He set records at Champs and the newspapers tipped him for great things. He struggled initially to make the transition from junior to senior, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the 2004 Olympics, and was heavily criticised in the press. Bolt looks happy-go-lucky, but there is a ton of work behind his performances. Realising that he was physically weak and gangly, he spent considerable time in the gym to build up his muscle mass. He spent hours working on his technique and would regularly do sessions that made him vomit. Whether Bolt dopes or not, his work-rate is undeniable.

The Bolt Supremacy is fascinating, and if I had one criticism, it is that after a while I found the constant questions about doping a distraction. Clearly something unique is happening in Jamaica. The comments from various scientists that Moore consults are illuminating. “They may not be training very effectively at all” says Yannis Pitsiladis, director of the sub-2-hour marathon project. Imagine how dominant Jamaica could be if more scientific precision was brought to training methods. Dennis Johnson says that Jamaicans are not actually running much faster than the sprinters of the 1948; the faster times can be attributed to improved tracks and kit. Pitsiladis thinks that there is nothing inherently “black” about sprinting, and there is no reason why white sprinters cannot run this fast if they trained hard. Interestingly, he thinks that the Dutch may be a rich gene pool for sprinting, and the recent success of Daphne Schippers would appear to support this.

The nature of Jamaican dominance will evolve over time. Moore meets some of the stars of tomorrow, and they are not 100m specialists. They are hurdlers and 400m runners, suggesting we may be on the verge of a great era for events that have not been in the spotlight. After all, when Bolt retires, it may take a while before anyone truly comes close to taking his place.

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“Today we Die a Little: The Rise & Fall of Emil Zátopek” by Richard Askwith

The bravest thing I have ever done is watch an episode of Button Moon. This seemingly innocent 1980s TV programme about a bottle man with kitchenware for arms filled my childhood with terror. At night the Freddie Krueger-esque presence of Mr Spoon would enter my dreams, leering horribly and dangling his merciless spoons of violence ever closer at my face. I couldn’t bear to see the show or hear its demonic theme tune. My so-called friends thought this was hilarious, and would regularly send me Button Moon-themed birthday cards and children’s TV soundtracks. One day in my 20s I gave in, and decided to face the peril. Loaded up on Plymouth Gin I sat through the opening credits and about 2 minutes of utensil-themed space action. Then I ran screaming into the night.
A story, then, of bravery and cowardice, both of which are the overriding themes of Today We Die a Little, the excellent new biography of Emil Zátopek by Richard Askwith (see earlier reviews of Feet in the Clouds and Running Free). Zátopek can rightly be regarded as one of the greatest athletes and Olympians of all time. He is one of only 4 athletes to have his own statue outside the Olympic Museum in Switzerland. At the 1956 Helsinki Olympics he won gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and the marathon (his first ever race at the distance), a feat that is unlikely to be equalled. He broke an extraordinary 18 world records during his career, which lasted from 1941 to 1958.  However, today his world records have been comprehensively demolished, and there were other athletes of his era – Vladimir Kuts, Lasse Viren, Gordon Pirie, Ron Clarke – who can all lay a claim to similar athletic greatness. Why then has the name of Zátopek passed into legend?

Bravery is part of the reason. Zátopek took training and endurance of pain to new levels. When Roger Bannister and Chris Chattaway were training to run the sub-4-minute mile, they were running 25-30 miles a week. Zátopek was regularly doing 20-mile interval sessions a day, doing 50, 70, 100 x 400m reps, all at eyeballs-out pace. In army boots. He wasn’t afraid to give everything he could on the track, and the resulting grimacing and gurning was a gift to sports journalists. “He ran like he was a man wrestling an octopus on a conveyor belt” is one of my favourites.

His appeal was about more than just guts. Despite only having a basic school education, Zátopek taught himself multiple foreign languages so he could converse with the people he met on his travels. If foreign fans knocked on his door, he would insist on speaking their native language of Finnish, English French etc rather than Czech, to make his visitors feel more welcome. A consummate sportsman, he famously gave Australian Ron Clarke – a great champion who never won an Olympics – his gold medal from Helsinki on the grounds that Clarke deserved it. He would tie his competitors’ shoelaces on the line if he noticed they were loose. He would cheer other runners over the finish line long after he completed a marathon. In many ways he was the Olympic spirit.

All of this was against the background of the Cold War, with Zátopek on the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. Here is where his story becomes troubling. In 1950 he was a signatory to a letter justifying purges of opponents of the Czech Communist regime, several of whom were executed. Many Czechs today regards him as a collaborator and even a snitch for the secret police. Askwith shows that Zátopek’s relationship with Communism was more complicated than that. Zátopek was a firm believer in the ideals of Communism and creating a fairer society for all, but he became disillusioned with the Soviet system.  In 1968 he joined the protesters of the Prague Spring, pressing for greater freedom of expression and liberal reforms. When the Russians subsequently invaded and clamped down on dissent, Zátopek manned the barricades against them. As the David Beckham of his day, and internationally famous, he was ‘too big to jail’, but the authorities slowly ground him down.

Small humiliation after small humiliation was piled upon him. He was dismissed from his role as Director for Sport in the army. The man who had once been the first person to break 29 minutes for 10,000m was forced to join a mobile drilling crew. To evade further persecution he was forced to recant his support for liberal reforms, dismaying many of his comrades of 1968 who had chosen to suffer imprisonment or exile. Friends on both sides of the political divide abandoned him, and it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that he re-emerged into public life. Ultimately, the bravest athlete of his day was a coward when it came to facing up to bullies.

Or that’s how some see it. But let’s be honest, who of us today can comprehend the horrors of life under totalitarian government? Who amongst us would be brave enough to risk death to preserve our ideals? Most of us, however famous, would just do and say what was expected of us in order to survive and keep our families safe. Sometimes the Mr Spoon-like tentacles of the State are too terrifying to resist.

 

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“Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila” by Paul Rambali

1956 was Year Zero for African running on the world stage, a 60th anniversary that few people appear to have noticed in the build-up to the Rio Olympics. For sure, South African teams had competed in global sporting events prior to that date, but the teams were entirely white. Given the dominance of East Africa in distance running nowadays, it is amazing to think that there was once a time when there were no African champions.

Ethiopia, under its dictatorial emperor Haile Selassie, repeatedly applied to join the Olympics in the 1940s and 1950s, and was just as repeatedly dismissed with laughter, until the International Olympic Committee finally relented and allowed Ethiopia to compete in Melbourne in 1956, where its athletes failed to make much of an impression. The prevailing view was that Africans lacked the discipline and temperament to be athletes, and would therefore humiliate themselves in global competition. Barefoot Runner tells the story of when everyone stopped laughing and paid attention: the day when a member of the emperor’s bodyguard seemed to come from nowhere to win the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, barefoot.

It was Hollywood stuff. Abebe Bikila had only joined the team as a last-minute substitute when a first-team member injured himself playing football. The marathon itself was scheduled late in the day, so that it finished at night, the final miles lit atmospherically with burning torches as Bikila and Rhadi of Morocco duelled it out for gold. In a sweet moment of national vengeance, Bikila won his victory by passing under the arch of Constantine, the very spot from where Mussolini had set out 25 years previously to conquer Ethiopia, known then as Abyssinia. He even set a new world record of 2:15:16 to boot. Four years later, and just a few weeks after having his appendix removed, Bikila won gold again in Tokyo, becoming the first person to score double marathon gold medals.

Bikila’s final years ended in tragedy. Involved in a car crash, he became paralysed from the waist down, and spent months recovering at Stoke Mandeville hospital in the UK. He toured Ethiopia for a while, giving inspirational talks to schoolchildren, but eventually died in 1973 from complications relating to his injuries. He was just 40 years old.

The words “story” and “Hollywood” that I used earlier are important here. Barefoot Runner is a fictionalised imagining of Bikila’s life. Although Rambali has clearly done a lot of research, he has filled in the gaps with speculation and incidents that may not have happened. There is a horrifying scene during Bikila’s first journey to Addis Ababa where a thief in a marketplace is identified by a boy in a trance and then hacked apart by a mob. Bikila himself is nearly fingered as the culprit before the trance-boy changes his mind. It’s a shocking and vividly described moment, and perhaps such things are known to have happened in Ethiopia at the time, but was Bikila actually there, and was he really nearly the victim of mob justice? Similarly, there is a roll-call of 20th century figures that have cameo roles in the narrative: Nelson Mandela prior to his arrest; Lee Evans, who was one of several US medallists who gave the Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics; and Wilma Rudolph, the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and worthy of a biopic in her own right, to name a few. Rambali imagines how these conversations might have unfolded. There’s no proof of course.

None of which actually gets in the way of enjoyment of the book. It’s beautifully written, and Rambali gets into the minds and motivations of his three main characters: the humble Bikila; his guilt-ridden Finnish coach Onni Niskanen; and the powerful and paranoid Selassie. Indeed much of the books is actually a fascinating portrait of an absolute monarch facing the pressures of modernity. And what an eccentric king he was. Selassie split his day into Hours in which certain types of business took place: the Hour of Informants; the Hour of Purse; the Hour of Judgements etc. The most pivotal moment in the story comes when two of the emperor’s’ western-educated “next generation” betray him and launch a coup, supported by the imperial bodyguard. It’s here where I feel Rambali crosses a line into dangerous embellishment, depicting Bikila as an (unwilling) witness to the massacre of aristocrats by his fellow bodyguards. Once the coup is defeated, the perpetrators are hanged and Bikila is only saved by a royal pardon because of his sporting success. It is a fantastically dramatic account…but there’s not a shred of evidence for it either way.

Ultimately the reader has to make up their own mind about where fact and fiction part ways. I have read some alternative accounts that suggest Bikila was not the mild-mannered man depicted in the book, but rather like later tragic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, he succumbed to drink and womanising as he grew famous and wealthy, and was possibly drunk at the wheel at the time of his crash. We will probably never have the full story.

Don’t let any of this stop you from reading the book. It’s a cracking story, blisteringly told, and unlike any other work of ‘sporting fiction’ you’ll ever read.

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“Running with the Buffaloes: A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher, and the University of Colorado Men’s Cross Country Team” by Chris Lear

Running with the Buffaloes follows the 1999 season of the University of Colorado XC team, from initial training in August through to the national championships in November. At this point in time Colorado was amongst the top 5 XC teams in the country, with a national star athlete – and future US Olympian – in the shape of Adam Goucher. During the course of the book we witness every day of their training schedule, following their long runs in the trails of Boulder and their brutal interval sessions. It’s like a training diary told in narrative fashion. We learn what they eat, how their coach Mark Wetmore bollocks them when they underperform, and most of all, how an elite team trains for the biggest stage of their college athletic careers.

The approach is probably not for everyone, and the layers of running geekery mean I wouldn’t recommend this book to non-runners, but for those who want to go on the journey, you are in for a treat. After a while the team becomes family. The monotony and routine of their training starts to seep into you. You feel like part of the team, and actively will them to succeed. The thought of a “#5” breakfast of two eggs, hash browns and wheat toast at the Village Coffee Shop for $3 sounds very appealing.

A shocking tragedy strikes during the season, and it changes the whole course of the story. The book is dedicated to the relevant team member, so while you’re reading about each training session, the apprehension levels rise as you know something horrible is going to happen, but not how or when. When the moment comes, you feel the desolation along with the whole team.

Unsurprisingly, the book is unremittingly American, with little concession to international readers less familiar with American college sports. I found myself regularly looking up unknown terms and acronyms that were not explained. When an athlete “redshirts”, for example, it means they’re sitting out a season in order to extend their eligibility, because US college athletes can only participate in four seasons . Similarly, I was unaware that “NCAA” stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and is the organisation that regulates all inter-college sports in North America.

However, not being American or an aficionado of US sports can be an advantage too. As I was reading the book, I genuinely had no idea how the 1999 season would pan out, where the team would finish at the Nationals, and whether Goucher would take the individual title. If I had a criticism, it is that as a reader it’s something of a shame that the very first page of the book tells you who makes it to the finals. Only 7 athletes of the initial starting squad of 23 can be chosen for the varsity team, and throughout the book the competition for the spots is intense. Chris Lear would probably tell you that the journey is more important than the “who”, but as you follow the various members of the squad, it really isn’t obvious who is going to make the final 7…except you already know.

Of course, how that squad is chosen is a major piece of the story. For his time, Wetmore was an unconventional coach, emphasising high volume and a return to the training philosophy of Arthur Lydiard. The mileage these guys do, my god. 100+ miles a week is made to feel normal. After a while, you start to wonder why you aren’t running those kind of miles yourself.

Just about everyone gets injured at some point, unsurprisingly, causing headaches for Wetmore’s selection process. There is also real emphasis on being thin, and the coach unashamedly bashes some of his skeletal stars for gaining small amounts of weight, something which makes me deeply uncomfortable after recently reading about the story of an elite male marathoner with bulimia. You do have to question whether all of this is healthy for young athletes, and it is noticeable that for most of them, the NCAA is the pinnacle of their running lives. Adam Goucher’s adult career never quite matched his college promise, and you have to wonder if the demands of college XC meant that he peaked too soon.

For those of us who only took up running later in life, and will never come close to matching the fitness and performances of these young men, Running with the Buffaloes allows us to dream of what might have been if we had only discovered the sport a little sooner, had a little more talent, and did not spend their teenage years with a loyalty card to Hussein’s kebab van.

 

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