Popaganda Episode: Olympic Spectacle
The most competitive sport in the Olympics, I would argue, is storytelling. Everything from the opening ceremony to the national uniforms athletes wear is carefully planned to create a specific story about the unique identity of countries (I'm not entirely sure what story Norway's curling team uniforms are telling, but I know it would for sure involve a sweet soundtrack).
This show explores the spectacle of Olympic narratives. First, figure skating enthusiasts Andi Zeisler and Sarah Marshall talk about media coverage of female figure skaters, specifically revisiting the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan scandal. Then, I dig in to how Olympic host cities make themselves over to create a shinier version of themselves for the international spotlight. Finally, we talk with Russian queer studies scholar Roman Utkin on the impact of the Olympics on LGBT politics in Russia.
Before you tune into the Olympics next week, listen to the show and excerpts below!
FEMALE FIGURE SKATERS
HOW THE OLYMPICS TRANSFORMS CITIES:
LGBT POLITICS IN RUSSIA:
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A transcript of this is below. Thanks to audio to text transcription by Rev.com.
Sarah Mirk: This is Sarah Mirk of Bitch Media and this is Popaganda, feminist response to pop culture podcast. Hi everyone. I'm traveling this week to speak at a couple colleges. I'm talking to you now from a telephone booth on the 3rd floor of the Brooklyn Public Library. This whole city is in the grip of Super Bowl fever. The game is being played today just across the way in New Jersey, and it's got me thinking about the next big sports spectacle that will seize the country, the Olympics, which take place in Sochi, Russia, this month. I'm just going to come right on and say it, I don't really care about professional sports. I don't have any favorite teams or players and I have a hard time cheering for one millionaire over another.
The last time I went to an NBA game, I was so overwhelmed by the annoying advertising. The honor of throwing shots before the game went to Ronald McDonald, but it was hard to actually focus on the game. But even if you’re like me and you think professional sports are kind of a scam, you have to admit that the Olympics are interesting. The Olympics bring together nationalism, storytelling, politics, and athleticism on a grand scale. The Olympics show obliquely how our media builds up individuals to be heroes and what values our national idols embody. Also, there’s a lot of whimsical outfits.
In today's show, writer Sarah Marshall and Bitch Creative and Editorial Director, Andi Zeisler, dig in to the ways that rivalries are constructed between female figure skaters. Sarah Marshall will read an excerpt from her recent and astounding Believer article on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Then, I'll discuss the ways that Olympics changed cities for better and for worse. Finally, I traveled to Yale University and talked with queer Russian scholar Roman Utkin about the Sochi Olympics and how it affected LGBT politics in Russia. From the third floor of the Brooklyn Library, this is Sarah Mirk. Stay tuned.
I first heard about Sarah Marshall's Believer magazine article, "Remote Control," from a co-worker who was excited to see her revisit the most infamous rivalry in American figure skating history; Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.
Sarah Marshall: In the weeks and months following the scandal, a new variety of sports journalism emerged that could perhaps be most aptly called the Tonya-bash. It was an easy form to learn, about as simple as a Mad Lib, but far more enjoyable, and almost impossible to avoid. Once an author set down one anecdote or piece of biographical information, he had to add one more, and then another. There seemed to be a greasy, eventually shameful pleasure that came with both writing and reading about not just Tonya’s gaffes or problems but the basic facts of her existence. Her sister was a prostitute. Her father was largely unemployed, as was her mother, as was her ex-husband. No matter how journalists added up the details, however, they all seemed to reveal the same motive: Tonya was going nowhere fast, and she had decided to take Nancy with her.
Somehow, in the scandal’s aftermath, the form of the Tonya-bash was able to alchemize even the most chilling details of Tonya’s life into tabloid gold. In a Rolling Stone article published shortly after the scandal, Randall Sullivan chronicled a visit to the Tonya Harding Fan Club, where he met “the club newsletter’s editor, Joe Haran, a puffy Vietnam vet with white hair and spooky eyes, who said he identified with Tonya through his memories of abuse and poverty suffered as a child. Haran was someone for whom it was not inconceivable that a world-class figure skater might phone the police, as Tonya Harding did in March of 1993, to report that her husband, Jeff Gillooly, had emphasized himself during an argument by slamming her head into the bathroom floor.”
More than anything, it seemed, Tonya’s history of abuse proved that she didn’t belong in the world whose acceptance she so craved. Yet her biography was nothing if not malleable. When Tonya first rocketed to fame by landing the triple axel in 1991, the media had tried to put a more positive and more salable slant on her lifestyle, using the same information, which they would later call in as proof of her trashiness, to paint a picture of a spunky, all-American tomboy. In the words of one profile piece, “She’s only five feet one inch and weighs only ninety-five pounds. But as petite as she is, there’s a tomboy streak in her that she’s proud of. She drives a truck and tinkers with her car. Yet there’s clearly a young lady coming through in her skating, and her personality.”
In 1991, the skating world had no choice but to try to love Tonya. She had done what no other American woman could, and if she continued to grow as a skater and continued to act more and more like a young lady, she could make her country proud at the Olympics, and earn both its love and its money. Back then, she also didn’t need stories of ladylike behavior and quirky tomboyishness to convince her audience that she was worth believing in. At the pinnacle of her career, Tonya was, in a word, spectacular.
At the time, the only other woman who had landed the axel was Midori Ito of Japan. Midori was a remarkable jumper, and she made the axel look effortless: launching all four feet nine inches of herself into the air, her body seemed light, buoyant, and meant for flight. Tonya’s axel did not look effortless. It did not even look beautiful. It looked difficult, which, of course, it was.
The axel is the only jump that a skater executes by facing forward and taking off from the front of the skate, but like all other jumps it is landed backward. The skater, having taken off from a position that makes gaining the necessary height that much harder, must also somehow squeeze out another half rotation while she’s in the air, then she has to land it. Completing three and a half rotations in midair is far from easy, but even more difficult is coming back to the ice with all the speed, power, and momentum you need in order to leave it, to somehow land steadily, and to continue with your routine.
Tonya was tiny, but her presence on the ice was powerful, undeniably muscular, and impossible to ignore. Commentators like to talk about skaters fighting for each jump; Tonya seemed to fight the jumps themselves. Later, much would be made in both the press and in parody about Tonya’s thighs, "They were huge. They were so fat. How could she even pretend to be pretty, or even feminine?" But they were, at the end of the day, nothing more or less than the thighs of an athlete. They were thick and powerful because she needed them to be that way to launch herself into the air. When Midori jumped, she seemed to float like a leaf borne on the wind. Tonya, Time magazine wrote during the scandal, “bullies gravity.” They meant it as a criticism of her skating, and, by extension, of her, but one wonders, did this have to be a bad thing?
What was inherently wrong with a spectacle of female power in which you could almost taste the athlete’s sweat, and feel her desire, her soreness, and her determination to leave the ground? She wasn’t artful, but it wasn’t her job to make art. She wasn’t soft and feminine, but it wasn’t her job to be those things, to sit still, or to smile passively while the cameras lingered on her face. It wasn't her job to be, but to do. It was her job to jump and spin, to tear the ice with her speed, to fight and fall and get up and fight again. And for a while, when the axel was a novelty and her country needed a skater who could challenge the Japanese, when the old narrative of American spunk versus the foreign juggernaut was ready to be dusted off for yet another Olympic year, and when Tonya could be counted on to win the axel was enough to make Tonya enough. For a moment, everything seemed within her reach.
Andi: So, 2014 is the 20th anniversary, and anniversary is a very weird word for this, of figure skating's biggest ever scandal. Is that partly what spurred you to write this piece or is this something that you've been thinking about for a while?
Sarah Marshall I've been thinking about this for ... At this point, it's been ... this is kind of my three-year anniversary with the subject. I first wrote about this in January. I wrote a very flippant little piece about Oregon's celebrities because I was just starting my MFA and thinking about, I was meeting all these people who are coming to Portland for the first time and New Portland is just basking of hipness, and I wanted to acquaint them with the Oregonian legacy, which I saw as one of kind of misfits in outlaws like the Rajneesh Cult and D. B. Cooper, and people like that, and Diane Downs who famously is a much more fitting villain for this stage. She's the woman who famously shot her children in the 80s in Springfield.
I kind of lumped Tonya into that group and wrote a little piece thing, "Oregon celebrities, aren't they kooky? Wohoo," and kind of wrote it and put it aside, and then kept coming back to it more and more and realizing that there was so more to say. I worked on this for two and a half years before I finally sat down and wrote this piece for publication for the anniversary, but also, I think because at that point I had also gotten a Master's Degree in Literature and had written a piece to [inaudible 00:09:30] Jane Eyre and kind of spent a lot of time looking at attempts to make one eligible in literature and through our culture. I almost feel like I had to grow enough as a feminist in order to be able to write this way, so I had to sort of ... I think of the writing process as not just writing the actual piece or doing the research, but becoming the kind of woman who could understand this material, I think.
Andi: Did you watch the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, "The Price Of Gold," that ...
Sarah Marshall: I did.
Andi: It delves into the story and it's very much from Tonya's point of view. Apparently, there's going to a more sort of Nancy Kerrigan centric one that broadcasts during the Sochi Olympics.
Sarah Marshall: Yeah. It'll be interesting to watch that because that'll be in conjunction with all of that pageantry. I think Nancy Kerrigan is doing some commentary for the NBC coverage as well. Yeah. These kind of documentary I watch. I reviewed it for the Believer logger and was actually very impressed by how it gave Tonya a chance to kind of say her piece. There is a moment that I really love where she says something to the effect of, "Nancy was a princess and I was a pile of crap, and that's okay." Then, there's this pause ...
Sarah Marshall: ... and she goes, "You know what? It's not okay." That's ...
Andi:That was a beautiful moment.
Sarah Marshall: ... wonderful. Yeah. That made me so happy because it doesn't ... I kind of lay out in this article my argument for the potential that Tonya was in fact innocent as she claimed, which at the time and still is, considered like almost as laughable as O. J. claiming that he was innocent, which is a comparison that people have a made a lot, which is also telling in its own way. The documentary, didn't really spend much time looking at that, but just the fact that it kind of ... I think once you confront the scandal on more than headlines and more than five minutes sound bites, you do realize that regardless of what you think about who did what, it was something that treated to woman absolutely horribly and that there were absolutely no winners in it.
Andi: Yeah. I mean, I was incredibly moved by Tonya's talking and her honesty. I think between that documentary and your piece, it really brought home the sense that had the attack never even happened, she never would have gotten the acclaim or the endorsement that she should have gotten. The skating world didn't want her there. I think the more we learn about the Olympics, and we're learning a lot more about the way it functions and its Capitalist machinations, the more I feel like we know the more her claims are going to be validated about how she was treated.
Sarah Marshall: Yeah. The more we kind of, I think, begin to criticize or to read critically the way that these stories are presented to us, I mean, I think the internet has given us obviously more of a voice, but in looking at the conversation around the Sochi Olympics and where we're, for the last few months, been saying, "Should we go because there's the issues with policy toward gays in Russia and all the protests that we've been enacting?" Absolutely, I love the fact that Billie Jean King is going to be in the Olympic delegation and I love the fact that Brian Boitano came out as gay a couple of months ago.
When that news broke, everyone I knew it seemed on Facebook went, "Oh. Male figure skater came out as gay, what a surprise." To me, that's so exciting because obviously men's figure skating is a very flamboyant sport, but there are very few openly gay male figure skaters today, which is incredible to me. It's sort of an unspoken thing, but it's not something that male figure skaters talk about. The fact that Brian Boitano coming out as an Olympic hero as a now openly gay Olympic hero who had kind of one of the most really triumphant Olympic moments ever, I think, when he won gold in the 1988 Olympics. That's huge. That's wonderful. I mean, we're sort of continuing to not accept the narratives that are being given us, I think, as much as we did.
Andi: I was in college when the ’94 Olympics was happening and when this thing happened and I considered myself to speak feminist, but my friends and I, when we talked about this and we laughed about this case. We didn't focus on the fact that there was this clear domestic abuse happening. Like that was made very clear. Maybe we just didn't know the details the way ... My memory of it is a little fuzzy, but it's like Jeff Gillooly's abuse and control of Tonya was really hard to miss and I feel ... I think back on that time and feel ashamed that we didn't really make those connections and think of this as an issue of feminism, an issue of class bias, an issue of all these sort of biases that were playing out in this very public way.
Sarah Marshall: Yeah. It's something that we don't associate with the story even now. Even if we didn't explore it enough, at the time we do associate it with class and with gender, but we don't associate generally with domestic violence, which is absolutely a story about as much as it's about those other things.
Andi: This year, women's Olympic team is under a little bit of scrutiny because Mirai Nagasu who took bronze at the nationals was passed over for the team in favor of Ashley Wagner who came in 4th, but who already has this sort of Olympic narrative constructed around her, complete with a lot of endorsements. It just makes me wonder, obviously there's sort of parallels here between Wagner and Kerrigan both sort of pre-Olympically being set up as the darlings of the Olympics, but do you think there's something about women's singles figure skating in particular that is always going to just be a locust of this kind of drama because it does involve hitting young women against one another?
Sarah Marshall: Yes. I think because of that and I think also because we as a viewing public are so trained to regard women in the public sphere kind of through this criteria, through the criteria of, "Do we identify with her? Is she likeable? Can we kind of take part in this journey that she's on?" I think part of what makes figure skating so salable is that we can really identify with characters in the narrative and they're so visible to us. We are viewing their expression not just through what they're capable of athletically, but through their presentation and through the way they look in the kiss and cry and area or things that we all overhear them saying.
Andi: I mean, it's fascinating, partly I think, because figure skaters are so non-verbal. You don't really hear that much of what they say and what they do say is generally very rehearsed. Most of them if they win or lose something will say some variation of, "I just wanted to go out there and skate my best," which we all know is not true or at least can't be true all of the time. We don't hear that much from them. One of the interesting things about the Harding-Kerrigan scandal is that we had essentially about ten words from each of these women. For Nancy Kerrigan, sort of, she became synonymous with the phrase, "Why?" or "Why me?" as it was sort of apocryphally altered to. Tonya Harding, if we associated any language with her, was her saying after winning nationals that she was going to go to the Olympics and whipping Nancy's butt. Those three words became proof enough for everyone that she had been behind it, she had done it, she was vindictive, she was aggressive. Those three words were enough.
Sarah Mirk: Sure there's ice skating and luge, and that one event where people ski while shooting things, but I'd argue that the most competitive sport in the Olympics is national myth making. Each country that hosts the Olympics tries to shine itself up to become a more shiny, more simple, more sanitary version of itself. Nations compete to host the Olympics because of beliefs that the games bring in lots of money and tourist. It can also help a specific city be seen as an international destination, but crafting a city into a made-for-TV version of itself is dang expensive. The preparations for the upcoming winter games in Sochi, Russia have cost $51 billion making them the most expensive games in Olympic history. It can also be destructive that cities uproot native residents and neighborhoods to make way for new hotels and stadium. Here for you now is three ways cities have remade themselves for the Olympics.
Sarah Mirk: Number one, a Russian resort town is remade into the most secure city on the planet. Fearing terrorist attacks, the Russian governments has stationed more than 50,000 police and military personnel in the city of Sochi, which is a seaside resort town of 350,000, and is roughly the size of Santa Monica, California. To put that 50,000 police officers in perspective, the London Olympics employed 18,000 security agents, which seemed like a huge number at that time. There are metal detectors all over the city and visitors have to wear a special spectator pass at all times so police can swiftly check their identity. Special forces brigade of Chechen War veterans will also be deployed to patrol the forest and mountains around the Sochi area. Life is such a hassle in the city because of the security.
The local residents held a demonstration in January, 200 of them turning out to hold a banner reading, "Natives of Sochi own the games, not visitors." While the transformation of Sochi into a mini-police state is justified by fears of terrorism, residents are quick to point out that the strict security has been used to squash descent. President Putin banned all protest in the city of Sochi for three months around the Olympics. That rule has been eased. Now protesters need to get the government to sign off on their demonstrations in advance. Activists working to show the environmental damage the games have caused have been harassed and detained, according to MSt International. In February, MSt International reported that one activist in particular was in prison for 15 days for swearing in public. That's a rough day at the beach.
Number two, China made Beijing seem more prosperous by building walls to hide poor people. In the years before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, urban planners demolished at least 55 tiny, poor neighborhoods in the capital declaring them illegal urban villages. Once that beautification bulldozing was done, the city started building walls around the areas close to the Olympic village that planners considered unsightly. The New York Times interviewed neighbors Song Wei and Sun Ruonan weeks before the games began. The Olympic planners covered Ms. Sun's restaurant with a veil of green netting to obscure it from the view of the marathon and cycling track. Authorities built a 10-foot brick wall around Mr. Song's house. "We all support the Olympics," Mr. Song told reported Jake Hooker, "But why are you building a wall around us?"
Vancouver became a real estate boomtown for the rich. When Vancouver, Canada landed the 2008 Winter Olympics, a Canadian Olympics Committee on Housing said that eliminating homelessness in the city was going to be the lasting legacy of the game, instead, the opposite happened. Vancouver is seen as a progressive, equitable city and reducing homelessness is a big part of maintaining that image, but here's a mind-blowing statistic, between 2003 when Vancouver won the bid to host the 2008 Winter Olympics and the time when the games kicked off, homelessness in the city doubled.
Anticipating an influx of tourist and rising real estate prices, developers started building lots of luxury housing projects and many low-income residents were simply priced out. Now, Vancouver's Olympic village has a cluster of fancy state of the art green buildings. The city built 1,100 of these housing units in the Olympic Village and initially planned to make two thirds of them affordable housing, but after cost overruns in the project, the city riddled that number down to just 250 housing units for low-income folks. In March 2013, local newspaper, The Mainlander, reported that just a handful of low-income residents remained in the buildings.
Those are just three ways that cities have remade themselves for the Olympic games. Of course every city that host the Olympics gets a bit of a makeover. When you tune in to the Olympics on TV and see the sweeping, glamorous vistas of the host cities, think about the people behind the scenes, scrambling to get that ideal vision into pristine focus.
As the Olympics approach the Russian resort town of Sochi, the headlines in Russia and abroad are full of news about the country’s queer communities. In June, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a ban on propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors making it offensively illegal to promote or encourage same sex relationships. Dozens of Olympic athletes have signed on a to a campaign asking Russia to repeal the law. To learn more about how the Olympics affects the lives of LBGT Russians, I met up with Yale's University graduate student, Roman Utkin, who grew up in Russia and is now a queer study scholar.
Utkin explains that Russia's strange legal handling of homosexuality has always been complicated. While the country repealed its law against male homosexuality in 1993, for example, it's never been illegal to lesbian in Russia. Of course, what the laws say in the books often have little bearing with how Russians behave behind closed doors.
Roman: My name is Roman Utkin. I'm a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures here at Yale. I write my dissertation on Russian immigrants in Germany and in Schuhbar Berlin.
Sarah Mirk: You grew up in Russia, but when was the last time you were there?
Roman: Last time I was there, maybe it was a little over a month ago.
Sarah Mirk: Oh, recently!
Roman: Recently, yes. All of my family lives in Russia. I came here the first time in 2005 and so, yes. Now, I'm here in the Graduate School. And I visit quite frequently.
Sarah Mirk:Lots of attention has been on Russia recently because of the Olympics and we here in the United States have suddenly been talking about what's going on with LGBT rights in Russia. How do you feel like in your experience for somebody who's from Russia and has been back and is studying queer issues here in America? How do you feel like international attention on Russia for the Olympics has changed the dynamics there for people who are queer?
Roman: I mean, it did affect things for the worse with the adoption of the law against ... what is it? It's so vague. Against propaganda of non-traditional family values, relations, etcetera and, I mean, if you read it, half of it is about how that law would apply to foreigners, and so some people think that it was actually adopted with an eye on the Olympics. Generally speaking, I think the main impact is that people are just much more aware of it, of the existence of queers and that sometimes their close friends and peers might be queers and they never knew about it.
Sarah Mirk: Have you been surprised to see how much coverage these issues have gotten in mainstream western media? Or has it still not gotten that much coverage and it's just a small channels covering these issues?
Roman: Right. I think major channels would only cover it in a negative way. So, I think here in the States, we're getting at least both sides of the picture. In Russia, it was all, oh look, people are outraged at what their rulers are doing and this is the right thing to do, to march for your traditional values and stick up for yourself. That would be kind of just one of the examples of its prodigal misrepresentation of what is actually going on.
What I was surprised about is that a number of online media, journals primarily, they actually ... I don't know whether it was coordinated, but they ... and late summer they announced a queer week or LBGT week, I think they called it and only covered LGBT related issues or not only, but predominantly, heavily. One of them featured a piece with 10 "regular Russians" of primarily younger Russians, but still just with their pictures and their personal stories. I think that was something that really struck me as a sign on some kind of progress because to your or whatever news outlet that you're typically reading online, it's all of sudden telling you, "We know that you exist and we are okay with it." I think that a shock and I don't know if it was empowering necessarily, but it's about something that somehow I really remember definitely.
Sarah Mirk: Do you feel like there are spaces in Russia for discussion in public that's not in those mainstream newspapers? Like are these issues people are talking about and really digging into and getting that deeper analysis online on live journal, on Facebook? Even in those communities, is it still pretty shallow because people are worried about what ... about who could be watching?
Roman: Yeah. I think, I mean, about live journal and in Facebook, too I think to an extent, there these so called Kremlin-trolls and it's this army usually of a bunch young people who are studying with computer school whose job it is to comment online, to spark discussions, to provoke people.
Sarah Mirk: Wait, wait, wait, wait. The government employs like blog commenters who would go comment online ...
Sarah Mirk: ... to stir up trouble?
Roman: I mean, it's not necessarily stirring up trouble ... Well, yes, I guess stirring up trouble. Because of how powerful the social media turned out to be in organizing various protest a couple of years in Moscow, so I think pro-Kremlin government organizations realized that they should find out a way of controlling it. As much as there are those kinds of provokers placed in the street, there are provokers online as well, but I'm sure there are more sort of secluded blogs and other kinds of comments, places where people profited, not that I'm aware of. I could only speculate about that.
Sarah Mirk: When you were growing up in Russia, did you ever seen these issues in media at all or having any space to discuss them? Do you remember the first time you saw LGBT issues in a newspaper or on TV or reading about it online?
Roman: I don't think it was necessarily up for discussion. You know, Russians are notorious for saying you just leave your kind of private matters in your bedroom and don't bring it out. Probably there were attempts to organize gay pride parades, but I don't think it was ever ... I don't think ever made it into major, major in these outlets. That's what I would say, but then also, I kind of always knew that it's not something that is ever going to talked about or discussed somehow on a more personal level. I remember when I came out to my mom and she was not a bit surprised, it’s just that she said if I hadn't brought it up myself, she would have never talked about it or so, that it was something that she knew but didn't know how to talk about it.
I guess that's the main issue of not having the vocabulary or not even the vocabulary, it's just more about the attitude towards the problem because people don't really ... It seems to me like they don't know how to deal with it, what to do with it and what worries me a little bit is what is going to happen with all these conversations and our conversation once they would declare over and all flamboyant figure skaters are all packed up and gone from Sochi. Are we going to keep having these conversations or not? I think that's what, to an extent, signify what role the Olympics played in fostering this more extensive discussion.
Sarah Mirk: That was Russian queer studies scholar, Roman Utkin. While they are sensibly about sports, the Olympics involved all sorts of issues beyond just how our top athletes perform on the ice or in the arena. They show how nations work to shape their identity. Whether its Russia rolling out the military to show it's really a safe country, to Beijing covering up the homes of its poor citizens to convey that it's a wealthy city, to the judges of US figure skating deciding what values an ideal American woman should convey, the Olympics are a spectacle. They revolve around putting our image of ourselves up on a pedestal for the world to see. As we go for the gold, it's easy to lose site of the less lustrous reality.
Thanks to Sarah Marshall and Roman Utkin for making time to talk with us for this show. Thanks also to Bela Shayevich for recommending I interview Roman. From the 3rd floor of the Brooklyn Public Library in a telephone booth, this is Sarah Mirk.
Sarah Mirk: If you learned something new on this show, please share it with your friends. Post the link on Facebook or on Twitter. The show is put together by the team here at Bitch Media for a nonprofit primarily funded by individuals, so please donate to Bitch and support feminist media. This show is produced at PAGATIM studios in Portland with help from producer Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. You can read feminist response to pop culture everyday at bitchmedia.org.
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