All posts by MPolitics

‘About Time’: Gay Athletes Unleash Rainbow Wave on Olympics

When Olympic diver Tom Daley announced in 2013 that he was dating a man and “couldn’t be happier,” his coming out was an act of courage that, with its rarity, also exposed how the top echelons of sport weren’t seen as a safe space by the vast majority of LGBTQ athletes.

Back then, the number of gay Olympians who felt able and willing to speak openly about their private lives could be counted on a few hands. There’d been just two dozen openly gay Olympians among the more than 10,000 who competed at the 2012 London Games, a reflection of how unrepresentative and anachronistic top-tier sports were just a decade ago and, to a large extent, still are.

Still, at the Tokyo Games, the picture is changing.

A wave of rainbow-colored pride, openness and acceptance is sweeping through Olympic pools, skateparks, halls and fields, with a record number of openly gay competitors in Tokyo. Whereas LGBTQ invisibility used to make Olympic sports seem out of step with the times, Tokyo is shaping up as a watershed for the community and for the Games — now, finally, starting to better reflect human diversity.

“It’s about time that everyone was able to be who they are and celebrated for it,” said U.S. skateboarder Alexis Sablone, one of at least five openly LGBTQ athletes in that sport making its Olympic debut in Tokyo.

“It’s really cool,” Sablone said. “What I hope that means is that even outside of sports, kids are raised not just under the assumption that they are heterosexual.”

The gay website Outsports.com has been tallying the number of publicly out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and nonbinary athletes in Tokyo. After several updates, its count is now up to 168, including some who petitioned to get on the list. That’s three times the number that Outsports tallied at the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. At the London Games, it counted just 23.

“The massive increase in the number of out athletes reflects the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people in sports and society,” Outsports says.

Daley is also broadcasting that message from Tokyo, his fourth Olympics overall and second since he came out.

After winning gold for Britain with Matty Lee in 10-meter synchronized diving, the 27-year-old reflected on his journey from young misfit who felt “alone and different” to Olympic champion who says he now feels less pressure to perform because he knows that his husband and their son love him regardless.

“I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now you are not alone,” Daley said. “You can achieve anything, and there is a whole lot of your chosen family out here.”

“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” he added. “Because, you know, when I was younger I thought I was never going to be anything or achieve anything because of who I was.”

Still, there’s progress yet to be made.

Among the more than 11,000 athletes competing in Tokyo, there will be others who still feel held back, unable to come out and be themselves. Outsports’ list has few men, reflecting their lack of representation that extends beyond Olympic sports. Finnish Olympian Ari-Pekka Liukkonen is one of the rare openly gay men in his sport, swimming.

“Swimming, it’s still much harder to come out (for) some reason,” he said. “If you need to hide what you are, it’s very hard.”

Only this June did an active player in the NFL — Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib — come out as gay. And only last week did a first player signed to an NHL contract likewise make that milestone announcement. Luke Prokop, a 19-year-old Canadian with the Nashville Predators, now has 189,000 likes for his “I am proud to publicly tell everyone that I am gay” post on Twitter.

The feeling that “there’s still a lot of fight to be done” and that she needed to stand up and be counted in Tokyo is why Elissa Alarie, competing in rugby, contacted Outsports to get herself named on its list. With their permission, she also added three of her Canadian teammates.

“It’s important to be on that list because we are in 2021 and there are still, like, firsts happening. We see them in the men’s professional sports, NFL, and a bunch of other sports,” Alarie said. “Yes, we have come a long way. But the fact that we still have firsts happening means that we need to still work on this.”

Tokyo’s out Olympians are also almost exclusively from Europe, North and South America, and Australia/New Zealand. The only Asians on the Outsports list are Indian sprinter Dutee Chand and skateboarder Margielyn Didal from the Philippines.

That loud silence resonates with Alarie. Growing up in a small town in Quebec, she had no gay role models and “just thought something was wrong with me.”

“To this day, who we are is still illegal in many countries,” she said. “So until it’s safe for people in those countries to come out, I think we need to keep those voices loud and clear.”

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Afghanistan Government Arrests Four Journalists on Propaganda Charges

Four journalists have been arrested on propaganda charges in Afghanistan, Afghan officials said Tuesday.

They were arrested in the city of Kandahar after traveling to the disputed border town of Spin Boldak to interview commanders of the Taliban, which has been clashing with Afghan security forces, according to the Afghan media watchdog known as Nai.

The watchdog said the location of the journalists on Tuesday was unknown.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said the journalists have been charged with spreading propaganda for the Taliban after ignoring a warning from the government’s intelligence agency not to enter the area.

“The government of Afghanistan respects and is extremely committed to freedom of expression, but any propaganda in favor of the terrorist and the enemy, as well as against the interests of the country, is a crime,” interior ministry spokesperson Mirwais Estanikzai said.

Taliban spokesman Mohmmad Naeem denounced the arrests and argued the journalists were simply trying to “follow the events and try to reveal the facts.”

The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee called on the government to release the journalists “as soon as possible and to refer the case to the Media Complaints Commission to ascertain whether any violation has taken place or not.”

International rights group Amnesty International also called for release of the journalists, tweeting it is “concerned” about their detention.

The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee identified the journalists as Bismillah Watandoost, Qudrat Soltani, and Moheb Obaidi, employees of the local radio station Mellat Zhagh, and Sanaullah Siam, a cameraman of the Xinhua News Agency.

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Pakistani, 19, Becomes Youngest Person to Summit K2

A 19-year-old Pakistani has become the youngest person to summit K2, the world’s second highest mountain, the Alpine Club of Pakistan said Tuesday.  

Shehroze Kashif reached the 8,611-meter (28,251 foot) summit at 8:10 a.m. Tuesday.

Kashif, who began climbing in his early teens, scaled the world’s 12th highest mountain, 8,047-meter (26,400 foot) Broad Peak, at the age of 17. In May, he became the youngest Pakistani to scale Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain.  

Several of Pakistan’s youngest climbers have been on K2 in recent days. Sajid Ali Sadpara, who in 2019 became the youngest to climb K2 at the age of 20, is part of an expedition there to find the body of his father, who went missing along with two other climbers in February.

On Monday, sherpas affixing ropes for climbers about 300 meters below an obstacle known as the Bottleneck discovered the bodies of Muhammad Ali Sadpara of Pakistan, Iceland’s John Snorri and Chile’s Juan Pablo Mohr. The same day, Samina Baig, 30, said she was abandoning an attempt to summit the mountain because of dangerous conditions. Baig became the youngest Pakistani woman to scale Mount Everest in 2013.

On Sunday night the body of Scottish climber, Rick Allen, 68, was recovered after he was swept away by an avalanche while attempting to traverse a new route on K2’s southeastern face.

Earlier this month, Kim Hong-bin, 57, a South Korean Paralympian, went missing after falling from the nearby Broad Peak.

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Volunteers Pitch in to Fight Russia’s Raging Forest Fires

The little domed tents of the volunteer firefighters in the clearing of a Siberian forest can be hard to see — even from only a few steps away — because of the choking smoke. Their shovels and saws seem to be tiny tools against the vast blaze, like toy weapons brought to a war.

As of Monday, about 1.88 million hectares (4.6 million acres) of forest were burning in Russia — an area larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut.  

More than 5,000 regular firefighters are involved, but the scale is so large and the area is so enormous that 55% of the fires aren’t being fought at all, according to Avialesookhrana, the agency that oversees the effort.

That means the volunteers, who take time off work and rely on their own money or nongovernmental funds, are a small but important addition to the overwhelmed forces.

“The guys (volunteers) are doing a great job. Their help is significant because the area and distances are quite large, so the more people there are, the more effective our efforts are to control the fires,” said Denis Markov, an instructor at a base for paratrooper firefighters in Tomsk, who is working with some of the volunteers.

The hardest hit area is the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, in the far northeast of Russia, about 5,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) from Moscow. About 85% of all of Russia’s fires are in the republic, and heavy smoke forced a temporary closure of the airport in the regional capital, Yakutsk, a city of about 280,000 people.

As the smoke intensified, Ivan Nikiforov took a leave from his office job in the city — not to escape the bad air but to head into the fires as a volunteer.

“I think it’s important to participate as a volunteer because our republic, our shared land and our forests are burning. This is what we’ll be leaving for our children and our grandchildren,” he said at his group’s encampment in the Gorny Ulus area west of Yakutsk.

Nikiforov and a small contingent of other volunteers dig trenches, chop down trees and set small, controlled fires to try to block the spread.

Volunteers in the area received some support from the nongovernmental agency Sinet-Spark, which provided sleeping bags, gloves and heavy equipment. Alexandra Kozulina, the group’s director of projects, said Sinet-Spark initially had planned to spend its money on information campaigns but decided to provide equipment as the fires worsened.

“I also believe our government should be doing this. I don’t understand why it isn’t happening — whether there isn’t enough money because budgets were cut, or some other reason, but we are doing what is in our power,” she said.

The main problem, many observers say, is that the size of the aerial forest protection agency has been reduced, along with the number of rangers.

“I can personally remember how each district had a branch of Avialesookhrana with 15-20 paratroopers. They constantly made observation flights and put out fires as soon as they started,” said Fedot Tumusov, a member of the Russian parliament from Sakha.  

The 2007 changes that reduced the number of rangers also gave control over timberlands to regional authorities and businesses, eroding centralized monitoring, fueling corruption and contributing to illegal tree-cutting practices that help spawn fires.

Critics also say the law allows authorities to let fires burn in certain areas if the potential damage is considered not worth the cost of containing them. They say this encourages inaction by authorities and slows firefighting efforts, so a blaze that could have been extinguished at a relatively small cost is often allowed to burn uncontrolled.

This year’s fires in Siberia already have emitted more carbon than those in some previous years, according to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

He said the peat fires that are common in Siberia and many other Russian regions are particularly harmful in terms of emissions because the peat has been absorbing carbon for tens of thousands of years.

“Then it’s releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere,” Parrington said.  

While pledging adherence to the Paris agreement on climate change, Russian officials often underline the key role played by the country’s forests in slowing down global warming. However, regular fires have the opposite effect, dramatically boosting carbon emissions.

“Everyone emphasizes that we have huge forests, but no one so far has calculated how much our forest fires contribute to greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace Russia.  

It’s too early to tell whether this year’s fires will reach a record-breaking scale, Kreindlin says, noting that the situation in Siberia has been particularly difficult for the past three years. What sets 2021 apart is that Karelia — a small region in northwestern Russia on the border with Finland — also has been engulfed by devastating, unprecedented fires.

As of Monday, Karelia was among the top three regions affected by the fires, according to Avialesookhrana, with 22 of them still active on more than 11,000 hectares (27,180 acres).  

“The fact that Karelia got ablaze so unexpectedly — there were fires there before, but there hasn’t been such massive fires there in many years — shows that in general the situation with the fires in the country is extremely difficult and poorly controlled,” Kreindlin said.

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Ties Between Peace Partners Jordan, Israel Seen as Improving

After years of strained relations between Jordan and Israel over the Palestinian issue, analysts say a new dynamic dominates their relationship with the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership and they point to some positive momentum. 

Jordanian political commentator Osama Al Sharif says that just a month after a new Israeli coalition government was formed in June, ending 12 years of Netanyahu rule, the two sides reached several initiatives helping to normalize relations.  

Their foreign ministers have concluded fresh deals on water and trade, he told the Jordan Times newspaper, whereby Jordan will buy an additional 50 million cubic meters of water as the kingdom battles a severe drought. This is besides the “30 million cubic meters Israel provides annually under the 1994 peace treaty,” noted Al Sharif. 

The Israelis “also agreed to increase Jordanian exports to the West Bank from $160 million to $700 million annually,” Al Sharif said. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called Jordan “an important neighbor and partner,” saying Israel “will broaden economic cooperation for the good of the two countries.” 

King Abdullah, in a recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, said he met both Israeli and Palestinian leaders following the 11-day war with Gaza, which he called a “wake-up call” for both sides, urging a return to the negotiating table.  

“I think we have seen in the past couple of weeks, not only a better understanding between Israel and Jordan, but the voices coming out of both Israel and Palestine that we need to move forward and reset that relationship. This last war with Gaza, I thought was different. Since 1948, this is the first time I feel that a civil war happened in Israel. I think that was a wake-up call for the people of Israel and the people of Palestine to move along. God forbid, the next war is going to be even more damaging,” Abdullah said.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told VOA that he shares the king’s concerns, if the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate continues and another war with Gaza were to erupt.

“As long as the U.S. remains committed to the two-state solution and talking to the Palestinian Authority, that’s to the minimal needs of the kingdom. It’s a frustrating situation because we know the status quo is not sustainable. Another round of violence like we saw earlier this year is only a matter of time,” Riedel said.  

Commentator Al Sharif also warns that “while ties with Israel can only improve after years of turbulence, trouble could be lurking ahead.” 

“Jordan cannot compromise on the two-state solution, nor can it accept Israeli actions” in East Jerusalem, he said, whether at the Al Aqsa Mosque or in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. 

Al Sharif warned that any future attacks on Jerusalem “will force the Jordanian monarch to react” as the custodian of the city’s Muslim and Christian holy sites. 

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Pentagon China Expert Sworn In on Way to Singapore

On a military aircraft high above the Pacific Ocean en route to Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin swore in one of the Biden administration’s leading experts on China as the newest assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security.
 
For the past six months, Ely Ratner led the department’s China task force, which reviewed where the Pentagon stood in its efforts on Beijing. Austin called it “magnificent piece of work” that fueled future policy plans.  
 
“I’m excited about having Ely firmly in the seat in this position,” Austin said during the ceremony Sunday held at about 9,100 meters (30,000 feet) in a plane traveling at 988 kph (614 mph).  
 
Ratner is a longtime aide to President Joe Biden, according to Politico, serving as a staff member when Biden was in the Senate. From 2015 to 2017, he was deputy national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden after working in the office of Chinese and Mongolian affairs at the State Department.  
 
Ratner was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday, along with five other national security team appointees.
 
On Austin’s trip, the first to Southeast Asia by a top member of the Biden administration, the secretary will visit Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. It is Austin’s second trip to the Asia-Pacific region.
 
He is scheduled to deliver a keynote address on Tuesday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. He likely will touch on his stated pursuit of a “new vision of integrated deterrence” of Chinese aggression across the region.
 

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Only Tokyo Could Pull Off These Games? Not Everyone Agrees

Staging an Olympics during the worst pandemic in a century? There’s a widespread perception that it couldn’t happen in a better place than Japan.

A vibrant, open democracy with deep pockets, the host nation is known for its diligent execution of detail-laden, large-scale projects, its technological advances, its consensus-building and world-class infrastructure. All this, on paper, at least, gives the strong impression that Japan is one of the few places in the world that could even consider pulling off the high-stakes tightrope walk that the Tokyo Games represent.

Some in Japan aren’t buying it.

“No country should hold an Olympics during a pandemic to start with. And if you absolutely must, then a more authoritarian and high-tech China or Singapore would probably be able to control COVID better,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

The bureaucratic, technological, logistical and political contortions required to execute this unprecedented feat — a massively complicated, deeply scrutinized spectacle during a time of global turmoil, death and suffering — have put an unwelcome spotlight on the country.

Most of all, it has highlighted some embarrassing things: that much of Japan doesn’t want the Games, that the nation’s vaccine rollout was late and is only now expanding, and that many suspect the Games are being forced on the country because the International Olympic Committee needs the billions in media revenue.

The worry here isn’t that Tokyo’s organizers can’t get to the finish line without a major disaster. That seems possible, and would allow organizers to claim victory, of a kind.

The fear is that once the athletes and officials leave town, the nation that unwillingly sacrificed much for the cause of global sporting unity might be left the poorer for it, and not just in the tens of billions of dollars it has spent on the Games.

The Japanese public may see an already bad coronavirus situation become even worse; Olympics visitors here have carried fast-spreading variants of the virus into a nation that is only approaching 25% fully vaccinated.

The Tokyo Olympics are, in one sense, a way for visitors to test for themselves some of the common perceptions about Japan that have contributed to this image of the country as the right place to play host. The results, early on in these Games, are somewhat of a mixed bag.

On the plus side, consider the airport arrivals for the thousands of Olympics participants. They showcased Japan’s ability to harness intensely organized workflow skills and bring them to bear on a specific task — in this case, protection against COVID-19 that might be brought in by a swarm of outsiders.

From the moment visitors stepped from their aircraft at Narita International Airport, they were corralled — gently, cheerfully, but in no uncertain terms firmly — into lines, then guided across the deserted airport like second-graders heading to recess. Barriers, some with friendly signs attached, ensured they got documents checked, forehead temperatures measured, hands sanitized and saliva extracted.

Symmetrical layouts of chairs, each meticulously numbered, greeted travelers awaiting their COVID-19 test results and Olympic credentials were validated while they waited. The next steps — immigration, customs — were equally efficient, managing to be both crisp and restrictive, but also completely amiable. You emerged from the airport a bit dizzy from all the guidance and herding, but with ego largely unbruised.

But there have also been conspicuous failures.

After the opening ceremony ended, for example, hundreds of people in the stadium were crammed into a corrallike pen, forced to wait for hours with only a flimsy barricade separating them from curious Japanese onlookers, while dozens of empty buses idled in a line stretching for blocks, barely moving.

Japan does have some obvious advantages over other democracies when it comes to hosting these Games, such as its economic might. As the world’s third-largest economy, after the United States and China, it was able to spend the billions needed to orchestrate these protean Games, with their mounting costs and changing demands.

Another advantage could be Japan’s well-deserved reputation for impeccable customer service. Few places in the world take as much pride in catering to visitors’ needs. It’s an open question, however, whether that real inclination toward hospitality will be tested by the extreme pressure.

A geopolitical imperative may be another big motivator. Japanese archrival China hosts next year’s Winter Games, and many nationalists here maintain that an Olympic failure is not an option amid the struggle with Beijing for influence in Asia. Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister, may also be hoping that a face-saving Games, which he can then declare successful, will help him retain power in fall elections.

And the potential holes in the argument that Japan is the perfect host nation for a pandemic Games?

Start, maybe, with leadership. It has never been clear who is in charge. Is it the city of Tokyo? The national government? The IOC? The Japanese Olympic Committee?

“This Olympics has been an all-Japan national project, but, as is often pointed out, nobody has a clear idea about who is the main organizer,” said Akio Yamaguchi, a crisis communications consultant at Tokyo-based AccessEast. “Uncertainty is the biggest risk.”

Japan has also faced a problem particular to democracies: a fierce, sometimes messy public debate about whether it was a good idea to hold the Games.

“After the postponement, we have never had a clear answer on how to host the Olympics. The focus was whether we can do it or not, instead of discussing why and how to do it,” said Yuji Ishizaka, a sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University.

“Japan is crucially bad at developing a ‘plan B.’ Japanese organizations are nearly incapable of drafting scenarios where something unexpected happens,” Ishizaka said. “There was very little planning that simulated the circumstances in 2021.”

Another possibly shaky foundation of outside confidence in Japan is its reputation as a technologically adept wonder of efficiency.

Arriving athletes and reporters “will probably realize that Japan is not as high-tech or as efficient as it has been often believed,” Nakano said. “More may then realize that it is the utter lack of accountability of the colluded political, business and media elites that ‘enabled’ Japan to hold the Olympics in spite of very negative public opinion — and quite possibly with considerable human sacrifice.”

The Tokyo Games are a Rorschach test of sorts, laying out for examination the many different ideas about Japan as Olympic host. For now, they raise more questions than they answer.
 

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US 1960s Civil Rights Activist Robert Moses Dies

Robert Parris Moses, a civil rights activist who endured beatings and jail while leading black voter registration drives in the American South during the 1960s and later helped improve minority education in math, has died. He was 86.  
 
Moses worked to dismantle segregation as the Mississippi field director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement and was central to the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in which hundreds of students went to the South to register voters.
 
Moses started his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding in 1982 the Algebra Project thanks to a MacArthur Fellowship. The project included a curriculum Moses developed to help poor students succeed in math.
 
Ben Moynihan, the director of operations for the Algebra Project, said he spoke with Moses’ wife, Dr. Janet Moses, who said her husband had died Sunday morning in Hollywood, Florida. Information was not given as to the cause of death.
 
Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on January 23, 1935, two months after a race riot left three dead and injured 60 in the neighborhood. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, had been a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and a supporter of Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.  
 
But like many black families, the Moses family moved north from the South during the Great Migration. Once in Harlem, his family sold milk from a Black-owned cooperative to help supplement the household income, according to “Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots,” by Laura Visser-Maessen.
 
While attending Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he became a Rhodes Scholar and was deeply influenced by the work of French philosopher Albert Camus and his ideas of rationality and moral purity for social change. Moses then took part in a Quaker-sponsored trip to Europe and solidified his beliefs that change came from the bottom up before earning a master’s in philosophy at Harvard University.
 
Moses didn’t spend much time in the Deep South until he went on a recruiting trip in 1960 to “see the movement for myself.” He sought out the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta but found little activity in the office and soon turned his attention to SNCC.
 
“I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe,” Moses later said. “I never knew that there was (the) denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States.”  
 
The young civil rights advocate tried to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi’s rural Amite County where he was beaten and arrested. When he tried to file charges against a white assailant, an all-white jury acquitted the man and a judge provided protection to Moses to the county line so he could leave.
 
He later helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi. But President Lyndon Johnson prevented the group of rebel Democrats from voting in the convention and instead let Jim Crow southerners remain, drawing national attention.
 
Disillusioned with white liberal reaction to the civil rights movement, Moses soon began taking part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War then cut off all relationships with whites, even former SNCC members.
 
Moses worked as a teacher in Tanzania, Africa, returned to Harvard to earn a doctorate in philosophy and taught high school math in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  
 
Later in life, the press-shy Moses started his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding in 1982 the Algebra Project.  
Historian Taylor Branch, whose “Parting the Waters” won the Pulitzer Prize, said Moses’ leadership embodied a paradox.  

“Aside from having attracted the same sort of adoration among young people in the movement that Martin Luther King did in adults,” Branch said, “Moses represented a separate conception of leadership” as arising from and being carried on by “ordinary people.”

 

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