Selling Sport Heritage

A number of months back, I took a look at the website of the new College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta to see who were the people involved in interpreting the site.  I imagined that I’d easily be able to find the researchers, historians, and curators working at the Hall, as I was hoping to connect with them during my next trip through town.  I find that talking with the people directly responsible for presenting and interpreting the heritage helps me to understand the current tensions, struggles, issues, and challenges at contemporary sport heritage sites.

Interestingly, I was unable to find anyone related curatorship or collections management or interpretation at the Hall.  In fact, the Hall’s “Leadership” has (from what I can tell) no experience in museological practice. This is not to say that there aren’t any researchers, etc, working at the Hall (they simply might not be on the Hall’s webpage), nor is this to suggest that the Hall itself is lacking in contextual or critical content (I’ve never been to it).  But, I did find it strange that the Hall’s leadership not only uniformly comes from sales and marketing backgrounds, but seem to have no experience running a hall of fame or any other museum or heritage attraction.

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In their foundational text, The Geography of Heritageprofessors Brian Graham, Gregory Ashworth, and John Tunbridge remind us that heritage is a commodity that is sold in different ways to different groups at different periods of time.  As such, even at the most traditional museums, the objects and exhibitions at any given time are commoditized in different ways, from selling tote bags and memberships to soliciting political, cultural, and financial support.  However, often, even the most brazenly commercial heritage attraction will make at least a nominal nod to being “educational” or having worth beyond its business aims.

Perhaps that’s what struck me most about the way the College Football Hall of Fame is positioned – it makes no such pretension to being anything other than a commercial venture whose job it is to sell the college football “experience” back to consumers (Perhaps the strange thing is that, for many of the visitors, the college football “experience” will be familiar to them – after all, there are numerous top-level college football programs both within Atlanta as well as a short drive from the city. But, I digress…). Simply put, there is little – at least that I could find – about the educational value of a visit to the site (there is a teacher resource guide buried in the site, but that’s about it). Other Halls of Fame are commercial crowd-pleasers as well, but will have centres for public research for example (such as at the National Baseball Hall of Fame or the Hockey Hall of Fame), or will have specific “education” or “learn” sections on their websites perhaps both as a lure for school and family visits, as well as for remote research – say, for school reports.  However, the College Football Hall of Fame appears to not view itself as a resource or educational centre at all.

Rather than this be a critique of the College Football Hall of Fame (again, I’ve never been there), I wonder whether the Hall shows the future of sport heritage, particularly whether sport heritage sites see that they should play an educative role beyond their commercial needs. Furthermore, I wonder whether places like the Hall demonstrate the new wave of sports museums, ones run by marketers and sales people and interactive games designers and without the traditional museum positions of curators, or interpreters, or historians, or educational programmers. Again, this is not to say that sport heritage attractions need not be commercial ventures, or that they ought not look to develop revenue streams – these are integral and necessary in today’s environment.  Rather, do contemporary sports museums and sport heritage attractions believe they are educational resources, that they are learning centres as well as attractions, and that they have a role in creating, hosting, and housing debates about sport history and contemporary sporting practices?  In other words, do contemporary sports museums believe they have a public role beyond their private commercial aims? Or, are they (and perhaps, should they) only be interested in these roles if they somehow augment their commercial ventures?  Does a resource centre or research room or archive only matter if it can somehow help rent museum space for weddings and birthday parties?  Is the College Football Hall of Fame model the future in sports museums, and what might that mean for the conservation, interpretation, and dissemination of sport heritage?

Behind the Scenes

Stadium tours are fascinating sport heritage experiences. The idea of going “behind the scenes” to see locations not normally on public view has become one way in which sport heritage has been commodified; going to the “sacred spaces” of a team locker room, or seeing artefacts from championship seasons can be a powerful experience for fans and supporters.

However, as Sean Gammon at the University of Central Lancashire raised the observation in his excellent chapter “‘Sporting’ new attractions? The commodification of the sleeping stadium” that people on, say, a stadium tour aren’t always major supporters – if fans at all:

…stadia tours will often comprise of highly identified fans, who display a degree of veneration towards many of the tour highlights, as well as the less-attached visitors whose interests are far more casual, and ephemeral at best. (p. 125)

In terms of visitors to stadia, and certainly this has been my observation as well, that many people go to them – and perhaps go on a tour, but on many occasions go just to be near the venue.  Or, as Gammon again contends:

…the stadium has grown in importance, from an often aesthetically indifferent utilitarian structure into an iconic symbol of a place, team, sport and/or event. (p.116)

Indeed, part of the appeal of touring sports stadia is that they are, in some sense, a repository of a community’s culture.  This is, of course, not to say that sport is all encompassing when it comes to representing culture, but rather that sport – and the places where sport is played – can become one of the representations of culture and cultural performance.

In any event, touring famous sports stadia can be an important tourism experience as well.  Places like Boston’s Fenway Park and Barcelona’s Camp Nou are some of the most visited attractions in their respective cities – and, given that each community hosts millions of visitors annually, the stadiums’ touristic importance cannot be ignored.

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Having been on dozens of different stadium tours in several countries, and being one of a handful of scholars who study stadium tours, I can attest that many tours follow similar paths and patterns.  Almost all begin or end at the team or stadium shop (stadium tours are, after all, a good way of driving retail services on non-game days and in the off-season), and most include stops at the media centre, a luxury suite, at or near the top of the stadium (The “birds-eye” view), the change rooms, and beside the playing surface or pitch.

However, not all stadium tours are alike.  I have been on awful stadium tours where I was deeply interested in the team or venue, and been on wonderful stadium tours where I knew little or nothing about the home team (and, sometimes, even the sport!). Of course, what a good stadium tour can do is connect the committed supporter more closely with his or her favourite club, and perhaps even make the nominal or non-supporter gain an interest in the club, venue, or sport.

With that in mind, these are some of the facets I believe makes for a good stadium tour:

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  1. Knowledgeable and passionate guides: Obviously, the abilities of the guide is important on any tour – stadium or otherwise – but, I believe, the best stadium tour guides are the ones that have a strong cultural memory of the club or venue (particularly those with some memories or nostalgia of visiting the venue in their youth), know about the current club, can deviate from the “script” when appropriate, and can answer virtually any question about the stadium’s history and legacy.  This is a tough ask, but I have been on a few tours when the guide demonstrates (or, flat-out states) that s/he has no interest in the venue, or the sport/team that plays at the venue.
  2. Employing the senses: Stadium tours are, of course, about seeing places not normally open to public view.  However, the best stadium tours go well beyond just seeing behind the scenes at a venue.  Many of the best tours employed all of the senses: asking tour patrons to touch, say, the locker of a famous athlete, or listen to the (simulated) crowd noise piped-in for the tour, or smell the sometime malodorous locker rooms, or the preparation of food before a match. Some tours even suggest that patrons experience something of stadium cuisine before or after the visit.  Seeing behind the scenes is great, but sensing behind the scenes is even better
  3. Imagination: Stadium tours offer a bit of a juxtaposition. On the one hand, patrons are touring an infamous sporting venue. On the other hand, they are touring the stadium it when it is “sleeping” and therefore not as it would be on a match day.  As such, the best guides and tours are adept at firing the patrons’ imaginations during the tour.  One guide, I remember, when touring the locker room asked patrons to imagine it was five minutes to kick-off.  He went through, minute-by-minute, what each one of the players would be thinking, feeling, or doing.  He even pointed to different patrons, asking them to imagine that they were a famous player and would say, “You! You are listening to your music in your headphones, head-down, focusing on what will be a very tough match.”  Finally, at the end of the five minutes, the guide rapped twice on the door and said, “It’s game time!”  I’ll admit, I had shivers up my spine.
  4. The soft sell: Stadium tours are an opportunity for teams and venues to sell merchandise, rental space, team or venue experiences, and catering.  The best stadium tours might mention these, perhaps in passing, but don’t do the hard sell.  It’s much more effective and enjoyable.
  5. Access: The best stadium tours provide the illusion of access – even though the “backstage” is always a kind-of front stage that is dressed-up for visitation.  That said, I have been on stadium tours that did not go to the locker room area, or near the pitch, or anywhere that wouldn’t otherwise be available to anyone with a ticket to a game.  The stadium tour must provide access that is not otherwise available, and certainly wouldn’t be available on a game day to anyone else but players and team officials.
  6. Souvenir: Many stadium tours provide patrons a kind-of lanyard during the tour – likely to identify patrons for safety and security purposes, but also to bring home as a souvenir of their visit.  Interestingly, many of that lanyards and other souvenirs also have contact information for further tour bookings, tickets, and hospitality services.  A nice way to have a memento while also providing a soft sales pitch.

The Second Half

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This week, I turn 40 years old.

As many (many) blog posts and articles discuss, turning forty remains symbolic; that there is, perhaps, more behind than ahead, that aches and pains are getting just a little more achey and pain-y, and that there is a tendency to be slightly nostalgic and wistful for one’s lost youth. There are times, certainly, when I feel great pangs of regret for roads not taken, lessons not learned, and skills not acquired. As Jesse, one of the protagonists in Richard Linklater’s excellent Before Midnight, says, “Every year I get a little more humbled by everything I don’t know and will never learn.” Playing a music instrument, understanding structural equation modelling, learning a second language, and hiking from Land’s End to John O Groats all seem irretrievably lost to me. One of the better essays on turning 40, by Troy Patterson at Slate.com, ends with stanza from Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty.”  It suggests both the ache of leaving a past behind, as well as a realization of one’s own limitations:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

There is a confidence in middle age, as well as a sadness.  There is a sense of inertia, I think, that is both comforting and frightening.  You know who you are, what you like, and probably who you want to be with.  But, there is that nagging feeling that it is too late for anything new, or find again something once lost.

Turning this back to sport (this is a sport/heritage blog, after all), I realized the other day – looking at my old goaltending equipment when I was cleaning the garage (a metaphor, indeed) – that I’ll likely never play hockey again. Being a hockey goaltender has been a big part of my identity for as long as I can remember; it was my (borrowing from Wang’s 1999 paper) my intrapersonal authenticity.  I still identify myself as a goaltender, but it has been six years since I last played and, frankly, the cost – in money and time – is probably not worth it to try and reacquire something of my very modest puck-stopping skills.  I will keep my goaltending equipment for now, perhaps as a material reminder, perhaps as something to show my son when he’s old enough (and, perhaps a misguided and vain hope that the equipment would be fabulous artefact for the “early years” wing of the Gregory Ramshaw Museum – opening 2025! :)  But, that time and those skills are, for all intents and purposes, gone, and that’s a little difficult to accept.

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I’ll also probably never, ever care about sport as much as I once did.  This is less about the million dollar athletes, billion dollar sponsorships, concussions, alienated labour, and everything else that comes with it.  In a strange way, I can (hypocritically) compartmentalize enjoying sport and being critical of it.  But, I guess, sport just doesn’t matter in the way it used to. I have the capacity, I suppose, to know the highs and lows of sport – I’ve seen a lot of it, after all.  I have lost two teams I loved to relocation. Most of the teams I support are awful, and I’m much more interested in watching my son navigate his way through his own sporting preferences. Perhaps that is why I enjoy the sport heritage side of things, that there is time and distance and perspective to understand what it is about the sporting past that we care about now and wish to remember.  I like to see which sport heritages become prominent, and which fade into the background.  I like to see how sport is remembered in the public arena, how it’s used, and for whom.  Even my own personal sporting memories have changed, in that I remember less the result and more who I was with.

And, I guess, as I enter the second half of my life, I find I am interested in different things – in sport, and in life – than I once was.  I have been exceptionally fortunate to have seen many different places and events thus far.  In sport, I’ve seen the Stanley Cup awarded twice, been to the Winter Olympics, played sports on hallowed grounds, met many of my sporting heroes, watched matches in lots of different countries, and played against some remarkable athletes.  Those, of course, were not separated from my life experiences either – sport was played out while I loved, lost, felt joy, pain, and anguish.  So, what I want as I go forward is something different.  I’m less interested in bucket lists as I am making sure that my inertia is occasionally punctured by something new and unexpected; that my nostalgia is tempered by a realization that I am incredibly fortunate in the life that I’ve been given. I mentioned to someone recently that I am sentimental, but not necessarily nostalgic.  I don’t want to go back, but I want to look around me.  I want to move forward.

I want my work to change in that, I want to know more about sport heritage, research it, and disseminate that research – but, I want to do things that are not related to sport too.  I want to travel and see sporting events, but I want to do those with my son and wife, and with my mother and father while I still have them, and with my brother and his family as we all grow old together.  I want to try cricket, and maybe run a race (though, I hate running outside), and I want to write a book that isn’t filled with academic citations.  I might even want to play hockey again, but as a forward this time! I want my second half to be…not great, because that’s the wrong word…but, perhaps, right. Not correct, mind you, but knowing that I can look back, knowing the regrets and accepting them, knowing the limitations and accepting them, and still being able to say, “yep, that’s what I wanted. That was right.”  I want to, as Jonathan Smith says in a rather apt sporting metaphor, “to play the games of the mind and the body and the spirit and to keep playing (because) one day it will all be over.” Because, one day it will all be over, and – for now – I want to get started. So, blow the whistle, drop the puck, kick the ball, and let’s get this half underway.

Stumblebums and Princes: A Brief Observation about Nostalgia

I have, in some form or another, been encountering nostalgia for most of my professional and academic life.

For many years, I was a heritage/historical interpreter at a living history museum, which not only meant I spent a great deal of my time in period costume discussing (and, perhaps arrogantly, correcting) visitors’ impressions, recollections, and nostalgias about the “good old days,” but that, over time, I also developed a nostalgia for those years spent interpreting the past, forgetting that my dreams then were very much centred on having the career I do now.

In entering my doctoral studies, and later as a tenure-track faculty member with a keen interest in the sporting past, I spent many of my research hours learning about, dissecting, and confronting nostalgia.  Indeed, some of my earliest published pieces – and, it would seem, my most cited – deal with nostalgia and its shortcomings, particularly in sport.  I will admit, nostalgia and I have had a fractured relationship of sorts – I often time rail against it’s sepia-toneness, while also realizing (see: grudgingly acknowledging) that it may actually serve a purpose beyond its commercial exploitation.  As a middle-aged sports fan, with a limited athletic career well behind me and support for a vast array of teams that possess incredible pasts but woeful presents, I often become unwillingly nostalgic despite myself.  Indeed, having moved to several different places in my life, with my current locale feeling ever more permanent by the year, I do often get wistful for the simpler days of yore, even though I know my recollection is frequently misguided.

In any event, every so often I come across a quote or description about nostalgia that seems to encapsulate its essence; that gets to its heart, exposing both its fallacies and possibilities.  The other night, I began to read a book called The Stolen Season by David Lamb.  It was one of those “you might like to read” Amazon recommendations based on my previous purchases, and is a memoir of a former war correspondent – who required time, space, and some peace following his assignments – who travels across America watching minor league baseball games.  The Kindle price was $1.99, and the dozen or so reviews often referred to it as a baseball version of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, so I figured it was worth a look.  I’m not that far into it at this point – only a couple of chapters – but it is fantastic thus far.  Nevertheless, the prologue opens with the following observation about nostalgia:

Nostalgia is a dangerous obsession. It turns stumblebums into princes and dunghills into shining mountain peaks. It makes yesterday sweeter than tomorrow can ever be. But nostalgia is an expression of faith, because inherent in our embrace of the past is the belief that rediscovering the lost values of our youth will return us to simpler, more innocent days.

Beyond the fact that I find this quote infuriating, not because I disagree with it but rather because I am jealous of its simplicity and eloquence, it confirms that nostalgia is a mug’s game – one we know we can’t win, but are all too willing to play anyway.  Nostalgia is dangerous, because we can get lost in it, and it can dangerously skew our perspective about the present.  It can also be palliative, and help us to rediscover something about ourselves we thought lost.  Being nostalgic is also a sign of privilege; in that we have the leisure to remember, and we have a past we want to rediscover. And, nostalgia is complex and powerful, despite our (and, often, my) desire to pejoratively dismiss it.

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Hammer, Sickle, Puck, and Stick

I have long had a fascination with the Soviet Union and, in particular, Soviet sport.  As a child of the late Cold War period, I was certainly aware of the dominance of many Soviet teams and athletes.  They appeared disciplined, focused, and absolutely invincible.  As a Canadian and a dedicated hockey fan, I was made very aware – and, I believe, at a very young age – about the glorious Canadian victory over the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. My knowledge of the Miracle on Ice came later, but by that time I knew that a victory over the Soviets was both very difficult and exceedingly rare. While the political and ideological aspects of Soviet versus US/Canada rivalries escaped me until much later, there was always something different about matches against the Soviet Union.  There have been few times I have been as nervous watching a sporting event as I did in 1987, as the NHL All Stars narrowly defeated the Soviets in a three game series, and any competition against the Soviets was something “special” – and, not always in the most pleasant of ways.

Still, there was always a deep respect for the Soviet teams and players that accompanied the fear of them. Many friends and family would tell me about the skill and abilities of Soviet players, even as they passionately rooted against them. As a goalie, I knew about Vladislav Tretiak even though, by the time he retired in 1984, I had only seen him play on a handful of occasions.  When I was a teenager, in fact, I got to attend a goaltending camp in Edmonton with Tretiak and, later as an undergraduate exchange student in Moscow in 1997, I got to meet with him for nearly two hours – which, to this day, is one of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences of my life.

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However, as much as there was an admiration of Soviet teams and players, they always seemed to be dismissed when it came to recognizing their impact, accomplishments, and legacy.  Only a handful of Soviet players and coaches are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, for example, with some commentators – particularly in the Canadian sports media – dismissing the accomplishments of Soviet teams.  However, it appears that Soviet hockey is being looked at again, in large part because of two recent documentaries.

Both Red Army and Of Miracles and Men re-examine the development of Soviet hockey, looking at the players and people who made the Soviet team nearly invincible (For the record, I have not seen Red Army. Hopefully, it will be available here in South Carolina sometime later this year).  Of Miracles and Men, one of ESPN’s “30 for 30″ documentary series, does a magnificent job of humanizing Soviet players and understanding the major challenges they faced as individuals and as a team.  Perhaps more than that, it makes the viewer realize both how remarkable those Soviet teams were, but just how awful it was at times playing in the environment that many of them did – with unrelenting coaches, administrators, and political pressure.  From my vantage point, it is one of the best of the 30 for 30 series – and, it appears that it is available to watch on line for free for a limited time (seriously, it is fantastic!).

Perhaps one of the questions to ask, particularly from a heritage perspective, is why there is a renewed interest in Soviet hockey at this time?  Some of it may simply be that the passage of time has made revisiting this past contextually interesting, and that the archival material – not to mention the players – are more available than they were in the past.  We are nearly a quarter century since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (has it really been that long?), and there may also be a sense of nostalgia for the team and the rivalries – and, perhaps even for the geopolitical certainty of a defined “enemy.” Perhaps some of it may be tied to material culture – seems that Soviet kitsch never goes out of style.  Maybe globalization plays a role, in that places like the Hockey Hall of Fame are welcoming more and more international visitors who wish to see their heritage represented. However, I think more than anything, there is a realization that hockey’s heritage narrative was simply incomplete; that, perhaps like talking about baseball’s history without mentioning the Negro Leagues, the Cold War era narrative in hockey was, at best, reductionist and, at worst, reviled.  We are a little more attuned (I hope) to jingoistic nationalism (certainly re-watching the 1972 Summit Series, I realized just what jackasses many of the Canadian player were) and that understanding the “enemy,” not as a faceless robot, but as a human being with hopes and dreams and aspirations might be a mark of our maturity.  In any event, it is wonderful to see that the Soviet hockey story is starting to be revealed, as the recognition of it is long overdue.

New Edited Book – Sport Heritage

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This week – February 5, to be precise – sees the release of Sport Heritage, a new edited book published by Routledge. From the description on the Routledge website:

Sport has become an important avenue in how we interpret, remember, and maintain our heritage. Whether it is being applied in tourism marketing and development, employed as a vehicle for social cohesion, or utilized as a way of articulating personal and collective identities, sport heritage is a vital topic in understanding what we value about the sporting past now, and what we wish to pass on to future generations. This edited collection brings together many new and exciting international approaches to sport heritage. Each of the chapters in this collection provides a thought-provoking sport heritage case study that would be of interest to students and researchers in history, geography, anthropology, and marketing, as well as industry practitioners working at sporting events, at sports-based heritage attractions such as museums and halls of fame, and at sports stadia and facilities. In addition, this collection would be of interest to those readers with a more general interest in sport heritage and the sporting past.

Here is the Table of Contents for the book:

1. Sport, heritage, and tourism – Gregory Ramshaw

2. It still goes on: football and the heritage of the Great War in Britain – Ross J. Wilson

3. Indigenous sport and heritage: Cherbourg’s Ration Shed Museum – Murray G. Phillips, Gary Osmond and Sandra Morgan

4. Identity in the “Road Racing Capital of the World”: heritage, geography and contested spaces – Ray Moore, Matthew Richardson and Claire Corkill

5. Heroes as heritage: the commoditization of sporting achievement – Sean J. Gammon

6. A Canterbury tale: imaginative genealogies and existential heritage tourism at the St. Lawrence Ground – Gregory Ramshaw

My strong recommendation, given the cost of the book, is to recommend that your university library purchase it.  There is a “recommend to the librarian” link on the Routledge webpage. Please also spread the word to anyone who may be interested in this collection.

Sport heritage research has come a long way in the past decade or so, and I strongly believe the work of the researchers in this book helps to take our understanding of this topic in new and fascinating directions.

Podcasts and Sport Heritage

In late 2014, following the overwhelming popular success of Serial, the wider world began to take notice of podcasts.  Although podcasts and podcasting are not new – they have been around for about a decade or more – it seems that there is a broad interest, or perhaps a renewed interest, in this medium.

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Though there are thousands of sport-based podcasts, I am not currently aware of any that are specifically focused on sport heritage.  I have considered creating a sport heritage podcast – we have a wonderful studio here at Clemson – and plan to put this on my to-do list for the coming year.  However, in the meantime, here is a list of sport podcasts that I feel at least touch-on aspects of sport heritage, sport and culture, and sport history.

Sporting Witness (BBC World Service) – An offshoot of the World Service’s excellent Witness podcast, this series specifically looks at first person narratives from the sporting past.  A great resource, and one that I have used often in my teaching.

Sportshour (BBC World Service) – Another World Service podcast, though more sociological and current events/topical than Sporting Witness, Sportshour examines some of the issues, debates, and topics that shape how sport is played, consumed and remembered.

Edge of Sports (Sirus XM Channel 92) – Like Sportshour, Edge of Sports is more sociological and current events-related, though decidedly more polemical. The show’s host, Dave Zirin, takes a very critical theory approach when discussing the social, economic, and political inequities of sport.  He’s a sports fan, but also realizes that his fandom is frequently fraught with hypocrisy, moral ambiguity, and injustice. This podcast is also one of the few sport history/sociology podcasts from the US, with decidedly US topics and points of view.

World Cricket Show – I’m not certain this podcast is necessarily sport heritage-related, though the hosts have a good sense of cricket’s past, especially in England. However, it is just plain fun.  The hosts, Adam Bayfield and Tony Curr, have a great rapport while discussing (and sometimes not discussing) the latest cricket news and matches. Frequently funny, always entertaining, and may even appeal to non or casual cricket supporters.

Sport and the British (BBC Radio 4) – This program is available in archive form – I believe it originally aired in 2012 – though it remains a great tool for revealing the history and current issues in sport.  Even though this podcast is specifically about sport history and development from a British perspective, so many of the foundations of contemporary sport are British that, at times, it is difficult to separate the national from the international when it comes to topics like globalization, broadcasting, and political uses of sport.  Again, a great teaching tool that I have used many times.

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