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The ATHLETE of the FUTURE : How Sports Scientists Are Harnessing the Mechanics of Motion, the Chemistry of Strength and the Power of the Mind

Patricia Loverock was a member of Canada's 1976 Olympic Track and field team.

A RESEARCH SUBJECT NAMED Orel Hershiser appears on a movie screen in an Inglewood laboratory. Hershiser is pitching the ball for the sake of science, so rather than Dodger Blue he wears only a baseball glove, shorts, socks, shoes and an array of electrodes and wires. As he throws, the upper body that looks slightly skinny on the mound is remarkably muscular and fluid. He uncoils and explodes across the screen in slow motion--frame by frame--hands, wrists, arms, trunks, hips and legs flowing together in perfect synchronization as he winds up and lets the baseball go.

Three 16-millimeter move cameras are filming front, side and overhead views of the pitch at 500 frames per second. On an 8-foot-high console, 2,000-foot reels of 1/4-inch magnetic tape record microprocessed signals from every twitch of Hershiser’s muscles. An oscilloscope’s electrical wave traces his muscular activity, and a printer simultaneously spews out a copy of the image appearing on the scope. An electronics technician intently monitors the performance of these data-collection devices.

Hershiser’s cooperation with the scientists at Centinela Hospital Medical Center is helping define the path of athletic excellence to come. On film and on an electrical-energy graph, Hershiser is part of a study of human movement that seeks to enable doctors to understand how muscles function--and malfunction. The information they’re gaining could allow them to diagnose and treat injuries without surgery, and ultimately help prevent sports injuries. It’s just one of the experiments being conducted in biochemistry, biomechanics, psychology and even genetics that may change the way American athletes are trained, treated and expected to perform in the next century.

Surprisingly, in this country, “the whole idea that science has something to do with the performance of athletes is new,” says Dr. Harmon Brown, chairman of sports medicine and science for the Athletic Congress, the governing body for track and field in the United States. Americans, he says, have been slow to accept the idea of sports as a legitimate focus for research. The Soviets pioneered the field before the 1952 Olympics, traveling around the world to film outstanding athletes and study their training programs. Then, in 1952, instead of copying what they had seen, they began designing their own research. The results were dramatically apparent in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, when Soviet athletes, who just four years before had won 29 gold medals to the United States’ 45, came away with 50 gold medals, besting the Americans’ 33. Equally striking was the improvement of the East German team, which won nine gold medals in 1968 but took home 20 in 1972 and 40 in 1976. That showing helped jolt Congress into passing the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, giving the U.S. Olympic Committee the authority to fund research and create an organization to raise money for scientific support programs and research committees.

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As the fledgling U.S. sports-research program begins to bear fruit, it is changing the shape and psyches of American athletes, who are feeling increasing pressure to turn to sports science not for the quick fix of steroids and illegal performance enhancers but for safe, sophisticated ways to reach their potential. What follows is a sampling of the ideas and experiments that could help create the American sports superstars of the next generation.

The Mechanics of Motion

THE SCIENCE of biomechanics is based on observation. Watch the body perform a movement, analyze that motion and use the findings to adjust the next performance. Increasingly, scientists and coaches are using advanced technology to observe activity that is not readily visible to the eye, breaking a single motion into finer and finer parts and, theoretically, perfecting it. In coming decades, experts say, they’ll be watching athletes move from the inside out.

Biomechanical computer analysis established its place in sports training when the United States women’s volleyball team won its first Olympic medal, a silver, in 1984. Head coach Arie Selinger gave much of the credit to Gideon Ariel, a Coto de Caza biomechanics expert and computer specialist. Using computer technology he developed in 1968 when he “married WordStar to ‘Rocky,’ ” Ariel converted videotape images into colored stick-figure-type drawings that move in three dimensions. The simple images on the computer screen allowed Selinger and Ariel to see what a trained human eye missed: the precise angle of the players’ joints as they jumped, served, blocked and spiked. Movement of the joints is a clue to the workings of the muscles, showing which muscles are working the hardest and pinpointing possible weaknesses. Selinger and Ariel used the computer data to adjust the team’s training programs and, Ariel says, to make medalists of what might have been a 15th-place team.

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Such computer models are being used to answer specific questions--for example, how far do a competitor’s hips move above the hurdles during a race? That information might tell a coach that the athlete needed to lower his lead leg to clear the barrier more efficiently. It cannot, however, reveal exactly what is happening in the body. Providing that internal view is the next phase of sports biomechanics. The Hershiser study, which analyzes and compares the movements of seven professional and six amateur pitchers, is part of the attempt.

The Centinela scientists record not only a slow-motion visual image of Hershiser but also a map of the electrical impulses produced by his shoulder muscles from windup to follow-through. An active muscle will “fire"--transmit an impulse--frequently. A muscle that is working less hard, perhaps because of weakness or injury, fires less frequently. Once scientists know how the muscles fire when one of the best pitchers in baseball history throws a ball--and exactly which muscles are used in pitching--they can use that model to help treat pitchers who are injured or in pain. By contrasting Hershiser’s graph and those of other healthy pitchers with one produced when an injured pitcher throws, they can pinpoint the site of an injury by spotting muscles that aren’t firing as a healthy muscle would. This will allow them to spot an injury long before surgery is necessary.

The no-pain, no-gain maxim applies in the lab as well as in the gym: Before the film is shot, a lab technician uses long, hollow needles as thick as toothpicks to inject fine nickel-chromium wires into eight sites in the pitcher’s shoulder. At each site, a 22-inch-long wire is carried by the needle directly into the belly of the muscle, as far as an inch deep. (There is a cot in a corner of the room for those who faint during the process.) The technician gently pulls out the needles, but the wires remain. For a few seconds, the muscle aches--"it feels like a charley horse,” says lab director Marilyn Pink--until the wires find a comfortable place to lodge. Once they do, they act as antennae, conducting signals to a radio transmitter Hershiser wears on a belt. The transmitter amplifies the signals and broadcasts them to an antenna across the room, which relays them to a receiver on the computer console. Every muscle twitch is recorded on tape, then appears as a glowing green jagged line on the oscilloscope screen. High, frequent peaks on the screen show the firing of the most active muscles; smoother sections with lower, less frequent peaks show when muscle activity is winding down or impaired.

“If you combine the patterns we get from the computer screen with the high-speed film, you can see how the muscles are interacting with each other,” says Robert Gregor, an associate professor of kinesiology at UCLA who conducts high-speed film research on college athletes. “We can slow it down tremendously, and this allows you to go through the parts of the movement, quantify it and provide any analysis that might be helpful in strengthening and rehabilitating.” The goal: to be able to give athletes a kind of “instant replay” analysis so that they can make immediate adjustments in technique and training. The Dodgers are using the results of the recently completed pitching study to tailor injury-preventing conditioning programs, says Bill Buhler, Dodger head trainer.

Ariel hopes to give added scope to movement analysis by using holograms, three-dimensional laser images. Sitting in his office, he envisions a scenario from the 1990s: “If I want to see Carl Lewis jumping right on this table now, using laser technology, I could push a button and he will jump. I will look at it again and again. I will stop him in the air. Then I will take my jumper and I will superimpose him and I will see where there is a difference.” Ariel adds that while his two holographic jumpers are leaping across a table-top, a computer will analyze information such as the strength of each jumper’s takeoff leg; how high each raises his arms and legs, and how altering technique would change the performance. He may discover that if his jumper improved his leg strength by 10% he could outjump the champion. Combined with electrical data on muscle functioning, such 3-D analysis could take the guesswork out of training.

The Chemistry of Strength

AS ARIEL AND HIS PEERS search for ways to quantify and perfect the movements of tomorrow’s high-performance athletes, biochemists are tracking the chemical mechanisms that underlie strength and motion. For some athletes, the chemical key to improved performance has been anabolic steroids. But the Ben Johnson scandal--which blew the lid off a system in which coaches look the other way or help athletes break the law--along with new evidence of harmful side effects casts some doubt on how long that will continue. Michael Yessis, an exercise physiologist and a professor of physical education at Cal State Fullerton who edits and publishes Soviet Sports Review, a quarterly magazine that publishes translations of Soviet sports medicine, says the Soviets already have reduced their use of steroids, not because of drug testing but because they have found that the drugs cause injuries. “They found out that, yes, steroids are effective for getting bigger and stronger muscles, but the muscle grows so fast the ligament and tendon can’t keep up with it,” he says. The muscle stresses connective tissues to the breaking point.

“If you have a high-level athlete, you don’t want to expose him to something that could ruin his career very quickly,” Yessis says. For that reason, it’s likely that athletes of the future will be seeking strength on very different chemical pathways. Doctors at the USOC are particularly interested in the question of how to fuel a super-athlete. “We see nutrition as probably the main area of performance enhancement,” says Dr. Robert D. Voy, former chief medical officer of the USOC..

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Although training tables and special diets long have been part of many American athletes’ regimens, basic nutrition for the athlete is one of the least understood areas of sports science. “We continue to use nutritional research that was done in the ‘40s,” says Ann Grandjean, director of the International Center for Sports Nutrition at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and chief nutritional consultant to the USOC. “That basically told us that if you have a person who is deficient, you can enhance his performance through proper nutrition.” But once the deficiency has been treated, pumping nutrients into an athlete won’t boost performance and may actually be harmful.

So instead of striving to find a single superstar-producing supplement, researchers are concentrating on the basics: determining the precise nutritional needs of individual athletes. “We know that iron, say, is very important,” says TAC’s Brown, who acts as a sort of clearinghouse for research that affects track-and-field athletes. “But what about trace elements like copper and cadmium. What role do they play? What kind of deficiencies occur as a result of athletic training?”

At the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Maryland, Helene N. Guttman, associate director of research, is overseeing experiments to find out. “We’re working on projects that have to do with athletics and stress,” she says. One recent study: “We did some experiments in which we saw the effect of copper deficiency on heart disease. Not enough copper in males would effectively make the heart explode if it was under any kind of stress. That’s interesting in itself. But we’ve found that the relationship between two minerals that athletes sometimes take as supplements, zinc and copper, is critical. Pill pushers advise taking zinc supplements, but an excess of zinc interferes with the body’s utilization of copper.” And too little copper, added to the stress of an athletic event, could lead to dangerous--even deadly--copper deficiency.

With such studies feeding into the nutrition research base, by 2000 it should be possible to determine exactly what each athlete needs in relation to the workout he or she is doing, Yessis says. One can envision a small computer set up at the training site. Once blood tests have established typical before- and after-workout levels of trace elements and other factors, such as hormones, amino acids and white and red blood cell counts, depleted during a typical workout the computer can calculate an athlete’s needs and deficiencies can be instantly balanced.

Ideally, computer models will work from data bases begun in infancy and will track the normal nutrient levels in the healthy athlete’s body through his life, Guttman says. She envisions supplements that look more like food than pills--a chromium-fortified apple, for example--to help ensure that “what enters the mouth enters the metabolism in a usable form.”

Voy is certain that within the next decade, advances in nutrition “will have convinced (athletes) that a peak performance in sport can be gotten without the use of drugs. And it will be a lot safer and a lot longer lasting.” Those who cling to a reliance on illegal substances as performance enhancers will be dissuaded from using them, Voy predicts, because “by the year 2000 I think we will have more sophisticated laboratory technology than we have now and it will be very easy for us to test athletes and control their use.”

Steroids may become passe for another reason: Researchers are zeroing in on the chemical processes that determine how much force muscles can produce. Eventually, they may be able to create steroidlike effects safely and legally with training alone.

The key to muscle-building is a protein called myosin, which affects the muscle’s ability to contract slowly or quickly, explains V. Reggie Edgerton, chairman of the UCLA kinesiology department. When a muscle has more of what is called slow myosin, it burns its fuel slower and contracts slowly. This type of myosin is associated with muscles involved in endurance events. Fast myosin creates powerful contractions that result in explosive movements needed for a floor routine in gymnastics or a 100-meter sprint. Currently, it is possible to increase the amount of slow myosin through training, but not the fast myosin. Gymnasts, it seems, are born, but long-distance cyclists can be made. And researchers such as Edgerton are trying to find out exactly what activity is needed to signal muscle cells to produce the kinds of myosin that will enable them to contract in ways that will enhance performance.

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“What we don’t know is the specific chemical event that causes a gene to synthesize a given protein,” Edgerton says. “Is it one type of exercise? Somehow, the (muscle activity) has to trigger a chemical to send a messenger to the cell to have it create the certain types of myosin. There is some mechanical /chemical link. If we knew what triggered certain types (of myosin), then we could design training programs.”

The Genetics of Champions

IN NURSERIES of the next century, a young athlete’s potential may be clear long before he can demonstrate it by hurling a block across the room or mastering motor skills more quickly than his peers. The process of spotting future champions, says Claude Bouchard, an exercise physiologist and anthropological geneticist at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, could begin with genetic testing at birth. “What we are doing is trying to find the genetic determinants that allow someone to adapt well to exercise,” Bouchard says. “We are not talking about selective breeding, we are talking about identifying those who have the gene combination that shows a gifted athlete.”

Bouchard’s ground-breaking research is focusing on the genes associated with the transformation of energy in the muscle, particularly the genes that are involved in replenishing adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. This substance is to the body what gasoline is to a car. It’s the fuel that keeps humans running. The more effectively ATP is replenished, the more efficiently the human operates. In his labs, Bouchard and others have trained hundreds of what he refers to as “truly sedentary persons.” His subjects have never taken part in sports or fitness activities. In fact, they rarely attended physical education classes in school. Bouchard put these individuals on a standardized, carefully monitored training program for several weeks. At the end of that time, he measured their maximum oxygen uptake, one way to determine how efficiently a person can replenish ATP. “We have found people who did not improve at all--zero gain after 15 to 20 weeks of training. Others would improve by 100%,” Bouchard says.

Bouchard and his team call the zero-gain group “non-responders” and the others “high responders.” “High responders are those very few, apparently very fortunate, who with exercise adapt very well, very rapidly, and they adapt a lot.” These days, Bouchard is trying to discover the genetic markers that make a person a high responder, and he believes that in 20 years his team will have narrowed its focus to 10 to 20 genes. Not bad, he says, considering that it takes 50,000 genes to create a human. Individuals with these 10 to 20 genes have a much better chance of becoming good, even great, athletes, Bouchard says. “When you think about athletic performance, if when you train you improve your initial maximal oxygen uptake by 70% or 80%, it is going to have a lot to do with your interest in the sport and your desire to keep training. . . . Chances are the top athletes in the world are high responders,” he says. “It will be impossible for us to tell that somebody will definitely achieve the elite status, but all the elite athletes will come from individuals who have these characteristics.”

The application of this research “is far down the line,” he cautions. “Within 10 years, we hope to have a battery of gene probes that will identify the genes associated with the gifted athlete. The probes are used to identify, but now only for a limited number of genes, the ones that we know are useful in certain movement. With that research, we can get the selected (children) into early training programs. I will not be involved with that, but it will take the form of channeling the motivation and the interest of the children so we have more chances to succeed.”

The Power of the Mind

WITH ADVANCES in biology, chemistry and technology narrowing the differences among the bodies of athletes, increasing attention is being focused on their minds. “There is a world of muscular talent out there,” says Ron Kendis, a UCLA sports psychologist, “but if the mental aspect is lacking, they don’t perform to their highest level. It comes down to the mental toughness. Look at all the people who dove against (Olympic gold medalist Greg) Louganis. They were the best divers in the world. But he had not only the physical but the mental wherewithal to win over and over again, even after a setback. He has mastered the mental preparation. He could see himself at every phase of the dive from the takeoff to the splash. The mental aspect is the cutting edge.”

Sports psychology has only been around the United States as a gradu ate-level study for about 15 years, says Dorothy Harris, a pioneer in the field. She says research going on now will finally convince American coaches that this field is important.

“Most of the research is being done on developing the ability to concentrate more effectively--mental skills training,” says David Yukelson, a sports psychologist for the athletic department at Pennsylvania State University and one of the few applied sports psychologists in the country. Right now, he says, “We can teach athletes how to refocus: not so much how to mentally prepare for competition, but how to stay composed during a game. If a pitcher has just thrown a perfect sinker that was hit over the fence for a grand slam, he needs to know how to let go of that. His next pitch has to be as relaxed and focused. That’s building and maintaining the concentration skill.”

Researchers are also trying to understand visualization. In one study, Olympic skiers are connected to biofeedback equipment and trained to imagine traveling over a course. “They actually can get muscle activity as they take the course in their heads,” Yukelson says. Eventually, mind and muscles know exactly what to expect at every turn and when to use certain energies. “They can plug into automatic pilot and move in the exact way we know will make them perform the best.”

Most intriguing, Yukelson says, is psychobiology: the body-mind connection. “It’s the thing we know the least about and that can be the most helpful,” he says. “If you look at champions in the Olympics, they report on being in a zone within a zone. Physiologically, the muscles are relaxed and fluid. Mentally, they are in a highly concentrative state; they are optimistic--they are in a cocoon. But where are their brain waves at this state? We are working with getting an athlete into the alpha state. We don’t know what that can mean to athletes, but that’s what research is for. We’d like to know more about the brain waves of an athlete, and what gets them to that state, chemically and physically.”

Ideally, sports psychology will become as much a part of coaching as teaching new play patterns, Harris says. “A sport psychologist’s time would be well spent working with coaches, who in turn could reach a lot more athletes.”

Putting It All Together

DEVISING THE STUDIES, carrying them out and analyzing the data are just the first part of building the athlete of the future. Even when science concentrates on application--such as Ariel’s holograms or mapping the electrical firing of Hershiser’s muscles--there has to be a way to make the leap from research results to competition results. In this country, the liaison between scientists and athletes is first a coach and then, possibly, a team organization that also takes its cues from a coach.

It’s a system that often creates standout athletes, but it isn’t a system that scientists think can create cutting-edge performances with any certainty or in any quantity, or make the best use of their research. "(Coaches) are scared of science and most of them shy away from it. They don’t feel comfortable with it. And because of that they ignore what is going on in the labs,” says geneticist Bouchard. Ariel and Yessis, as well as Bouchard, point to the fact that there are no standardized requirements for coaching, no assurance that coaches will even be marginally aware of sport sciences. “More than 80% of the coaches here have no training,” Yessis says. “Look at the coaches in Little League and AYSO: It’s parents.” Virtually anyone with enthusiasm can get some sort of coaching job. “At the high school level, the coaches are English teachers and history teachers who might have a little background, but who need some extra money. College coaches are also mostly former players, but with no background in training and conditioning. Take (former UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden. What made him great? He was able to handle eight or 10 wild egos at one time. He focused on psyching the guys up for the big game and had them practice the best plays over and over. But it was all just based on his own experience. On the pro level, again many coaches come from the ranks of former players.”

It is a system, sports scientists say, that must be changed. “For (my) research to have any kind of effect on the field of sport performance, we are going to have to have almost a revolution in the people involved in the coaching field,” Bouchard says. Ariel agrees. "(Coaches) cannot be just physical educators,” says the man who has worked with U.S. Olympic coaches of track and field, handball and volleyball. “They have to have knowledge of physics, psychology, physiology.”

Ariel sees the computer as an antidote to the lack of scientifically trained coaches. He is beginning to collect information for his own sports data base, and he envisions extensive computer files crammed with the latest information. A coach will enter an athlete’s age, weight, bone density, leg strength and recent sport performances, and the computer will tell the coach how the athlete should train to maximize his or her potential. This training plan will be based on data from similar athletes around the world.

When scientists think about combining science and sports, however, they think in grander terms than simply improving the knowledge of the coaches. They talk longingly of the system of the Eastern Bloc nations. Nutrition specialist Grandjean remembers a conversation with an Eastern Bloc coach. “He told me that the U.S. has more information--more computers, more scientists, more researchers than they do in his country. ‘What you do not have,’ he said, ‘is a system to distribute that information. If I was told that my athletes had to eat peas to win, they would be eating peas in three days.’ ”

Yessis says his surveys of Soviet research show that much of what the current U.S. research foreshadows is already reality in the Soviet Union. The Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries, Yessis says, train their coaches at government sports institutes with an emphasis on sports science. Coaches working with elite Soviet athletes must have been ranked athletes themselves and have completed postgraduate instruction in sports sciences. Many top researchers are former athletes. Nutrition evaluation, including frequent blood and urine testing, is as much a part of a Soviet athlete’s routine as a warm-up jog.

But most important, according to Yessis, the Soviets begin their athletictraining process by evaluating children psychologically and physically at a young age, and enrolling promising candidates in state schools where general education is combined with athletic training and where sports sciences can be applied and furthered.

Yessis points to recent papers published in the Soviet Union about the use of high-intensity field currents to measure muscle fatigue. (The study was conducted on Olympic athletes and hopefuls.) The Soviets’ system will allow any applications gleaned from the study to be easily disseminated. In this country, not only would athletes and coaches be unlikely to hear about the study and its results, but it also would be difficult to get athletes to interrupt their training to participate in this kind of experimentation. Robert Voy says what the Soviets have that the Americans don’t is the “full attention of (the) athletes.”

None of the scientists think the Soviet system could or even should translate directly to the United States, where the tradition of individual effort is the norm, but all would like to apply some of the Soviet training techniques.

Gideon Ariel is participating in a program started last year in Israel that he thinks shows the direction that would make U.S. athletics most successful. Ariel and a group of sports scientists he’s chosen from a variety of East Bloc countries have identified sports in which Israeli athletes can be world dominant by 2000. One of those chosen was women’s field hockey, Ariel says. Today in Israel, young girls who have excelled in sports such as volleyball are being tested for the movement skills needed for field hockey. “You begin with children who are 5 or 6 years old. You don’t just play field hockey. You let them have gymnastics, swimming, resistance (weight) training and hockey. You teach them the mathematics of hockey-stick moves. All their lives they are learning everything from the point of view of field hockey.” The team members will be well cared for, earning an education and financial security as repayment for the sacrifice required to be able to compete at the elite level.

“We tried something like that in Colorado Springs for many years starting in 1976,” Ariel says. “But it didn’t work, there was too much politics. And the results of the Olympics speak for themselves. For something like that to work here, it would have to be organized tightly--the same way NASA would put someone on the moon.”

Yessis sees at least an evolution and expansion of privately run sports schools in this country, noting, for example, plans to build a large sports-training complex in Orange County in the next five years. Yessis predicts that these institutions will have individuals from all areas of sports science working with physically gifted children and their coaches. Children will combine their sports training with the rest of their education, as is done in the Soviet Union. The institutions will be expensive and probably elitist, but could point the way to making advanced training more available.

Without such in-at-the-ground-floor programs, however, the trick to getting the full attention of the athlete may be through money. In 1981, the United States began to open its national teams to sponsorship and to allow athletes to earn money--placed in a trust fund while they competed as “amateurs"--from individual endorsements and even prize money. The leader in the process was the Athletic Congress, the governing body of track and field events.

Although he sees an increasing centralization in the United States, Yessis believes that the way superstars are created here will be much the same way they have always been created: through the individual desire to win. That will bring coaches and athletes to science, as it does from time to time now, in search of the better techniques and the latest info. And their success will in turn propel the United States toward more and more centralized options that he sees as necessary to high performance.

Already, he says, he is approached by parents asking him whether he can test their children to find out which sport is best for them. And in one case, Yessis is working with a coach and an athlete, trying to provide the sports science element in a training regimen.

He has worked for five years with USC sophomore quarterback Todd Marinovich. Yessis met Marinovich and his father, former Oakland Raiders player and Los Angeles Rams scout Marv Marinovich, when Todd was 13. They have worked together since, applying Yessis’ knowledge of biomechanics, exercise physiology and Soviet sports research to Todd’s training. As a high school student at Capistrano Valley High School, Todd passed the football for 9,194 yards, more than any other high school quarterback in history. If he stays healthy and continues his march through the record books as a college quarterback, Yessis predicts that there’s going to be greater interest from athletes, coaches and parents in what it takes to build a talent like Todd.

“There are going to be coaches coming through, like a Marv Marinovich, who are going to be having outstanding athletes. Others will ask, ‘Where did they come from? How come he’s winning?’ and then they will say to themselves, ‘Maybe I have something to learn,’ ” Yessis says.

Researcher Jill Gottesman also contributed to this report.


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