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Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 12:51 GMT
Hitting a wall
Squash

By Steve Tomkins

Squash is one of those sports the British excel at, but no one seems to pay any attention to. As the country's foremost squash club faces demolition, the sport is weathering a serious image problem.

Lambs squash club in Moorgate was described by Jahangir Khan, the six-times World Open champion, as the best he had ever played in. It is one of the most well-loved and prestigious squash clubs in the world, the largest in the UK, and home to the British Open.

This year the nine-court facility, known as the Wimbledon of squash, will be closed down, to make way for a block of flats.

This sounds like the story of a sport in the doldrums. It is hard to imagine Wimbledon or Wembley being unceremoniously sold to property developers. Squash has not captured British hearts and minds, it seems. You certainly have to sit up pretty late if you want to catch a match on TV.

Peter Nicol
Recognise him? Peter Nicol, winner of just about every squash title
And yet when you consider just how well Britain does at the sport, this coolness seems rather extraordinary.

"We have consistently had half the players in the world top 20 - male and female - since the rankings began," says the commentator Alan Thatcher. "Can you imagine the reaction if our tennis players achieved anything like that?"

The British squash player Peter Nicol - who has represented Scotland and England - has a level of success that would have made Tim Henman not so much a superstar as a national god. He retired from professional squash last summer after winning gold medals in both singles and doubles at the Commonwealth Games. He was number one in the world rankings for 60 consecutive months, and won every national and international squash tournament.

Why Nicol's stardom is such a secret is a mystery. The British public is routinely thrown into a frenzy over the smallest hope of success in football and tennis. Even Nigel Short became a household name on the strength of completely failing to beat Garry Kasparov at that least glamorous of all sports, chess, in 1993.

Many English soccer fans under 40 still seem to be reeling from the world cup victory that happened before they were born. Why so little interest then in one game that British players actually win.

"It is a little bit strange," says Nicol. "I was at the Sports Personality of the year awards, and I was put near the front with the likes of Linford Christie and Boris Becker, it was very nice. But there wasn't a single mention of squash all night."

Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Rumsfeld recently said he plays it every day. I'm not sure that helps
Former world No 1, Peter Nicol
"That was frustrating," agrees Thatcher. "His Commonwealth Games final was the sporting highlight of year, and it deserves recognition. The Telegraph and Times have just released their squash correspondents, and yet the game is better than it's ever been before at the top level."

How has squash remained so hidden? Thatcher points his finger at the British obsession with football, and, at a local level, "the rape of the sport by health and fitness clubs"; Lambs being the most tragic example.

Nicol suggests there may be an image problem too.

"It has a rather corporate image. People think of aggressive yuppies knocking each other about on the squash court. Michael Douglas played squash in Wall Street. Donald Rumsfeld recently said he plays it every day. I'm not sure that helps."

Perhaps the fact that squash involves a small ball moving very fast, in an enclosed space, has not invited TV coverage. But Thatcher says that the game has adapted itself to that challenge.

"We have a glass court now, with a white ball against a dark background. And the rules have changed to make the games shorter. It's perfect for TV, but TV doesn't seem to realise that yet."

Gym
Gym exercise has surged in popularity, while squash has declined
Another tactic in winning the PR game is mini-squash, played in canvas courts in school playgrounds. Chris Sly teaches squash and mini-squash in London.

"I've trained 6-year-olds and 70-year-olds," he says, "and they love it. There's something very primitive about hitting a ball against a wall."

"We missed two or three generations," says Thatcher, "but a lot of coaches are going into schools now, and it's making a big difference."

Nicol too is devoting his time to promoting the game, as a decade of winning it somehow failed to do. "I was quite fortunate during my career to be able to live my own life. All I wanted was to play squash, not talk about it on TV. At the same time, it is frustrating."

He sees that changing over the next five years. "I see squash getting more popular year by year, more people playing, better coverage. And hopefully we'll be in the 2016 Olympics. I believe in the sport, I love the sport, I'm very positive about where it's going."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Do your research properly - Peter Nichol is Scottish but chose to represent England because of the better training and facilities.
matt blackburn, edinburgh, scotland

The British Open, as far as I am aware, will be hosted by the National Squash Centre in Manchester in 2007. Maybe this was a contributory factor in the decision making process.
Nick Evans, Solihull, UK

Pity the developers and planners did not see fit to incorporate the squash club into the new development, and were not obliged to provide an equivalent facility there or elsewhere. Squash is a great game for getting exercise indoors, but hard on the knees, and not a sport that develops the musculature that turns women's heads. Moreover, for an audience, the play varies between too fast to follow and borinngly repetitious. Brits are good at sailing, and absolutely top of the world at gliding, and in the latter, women can compete on equal terms with men. Neither make good television. It is no coincidence that a game of football lasts about as long as a film or a play. We still have the opportunity to excel in sports requiring unusual technical skills or equipment, but don't succeed when all that is required are favourable physique, endless practice, and the determination that often comes from a chance to rise out of poverty through sporting excellence.
K Towell, Guildford, England

Squash is a fantastic game & aerobic workout, the calorie burn alone must be massive. As a competive sport there is no equal, just you, your opponent and a small fast moving ball. Great!
James Broomfield, Derby, UK

What better incentive when young to be told that bashing that ball off that wall is great training to being a great sportsperson in a few years. As for image, you could say that about most sports, e.g. grown men punching each other?
Aileen McColl, Glasgow

Racketball may be the saviour of Squash and Squash Clubs. With its larger bouncier ball it is very aerobic and much less stressful on the limbs and heart. It is appealing to all sorts of people who are not natural rackets players and it is a load of fun
Nigel Hillier, Thame Oxfordshire

Sailing and Badminton probably have similar problems. We excel at them internationally yet most people don't know who are best competitors are. Perhaps the BBC could do something about it and start showing less well known sports more often. Lets face it Cricket, Football, Rugby and Tennis get the majority coverage yet England is utterly hopeless at these sports at the moment.
Pete, West Yorkshire, UK

I have only recently taken up squash again after playing one game once before when I was 14. I am loving it. We have a league at work which can get pretty fierce and we are constantly looking for more competitors. One thing I have noticed is the lack of squash courts in the area. It is a real shame Lambs is being demolished. Is it too late to save it?
David, Southampton

Having worked in squash clubs in the late 80's and 90's I agree with the comments on squash losing out to gyms......however this was compounded by the greed of owners at that time as pure economics dictated the conversion of 2 squash courts in to an area accomodating 30 to 40 pieces of gym kit and a subsequent increase in footfall for owners.
John Lavan, Cobham Surrey

Great article, as a squash fanatic who struggles to find local courts for less than 6/hr I identified with this. As well as overpriced local health centre / gyms holding a monopoly on courts, I think the IOC has to take a portion of blame - I'd love to know how they justify Taekwondo or BMX as Olympic Sports ahead of Squash!
Peter Lidstone, Bristol, UK

Still playing in my mid 40s like many of my generation when will the youth of today wake up to this brilliant game that you dont have to be 6 foot 4 to excel at - Peter Nicol is a classic example
Richard King, Milton Keynes

Up until I was 40 I was a regular squash player and played in the league at the local YMCA sports centre. They closed it down through lack of funds and some years later it's still awaiting planning permission to be redeveloped as housing. I moved my custom to another sports centre only for the squash courts to be closed 6 months later to make way for a gym "by public demand". I changed again and the same thing happened after a year or so. The only places left to play squash now are expensive private clubs with long waiting lists and onerous booking rules. After a period of inactivity I shrugged, paid my money and joined the hordes at the local gym. I've stuck at it and it's OK - but it isn't sport. The simple fact is that a leisure centre run by the local authority can cram 2 dozen people on exercise machines into the same space as is taken up by a squash court, charge a similar hourly rate and hence multiply their income by a factor of 12. Why preserve what is considered a minority sport under these circumstances?
Simon Taylor, Maidstone, UK

I think anyone who plays squash casually knows why it is not a popular sport. For a good game of squash, you have to be at a similar level to your opponent. If you are a bit worse than them, then it's a bit like Custer's last stand, massacre. Also the effort needed to get beaten if quite extraordinary; I can get beaten for far less effort at, say, badminton. Every time I see squash on the telly, and I struggle to keep up or even see the ball, I remember the bad times, fighting for air, feeling humiliated, and promptly look for some football, cricket, boxing - hell even ten pin bowling.
John Harrison, Orpington

How sad, that the pursuit of greater individual wealth outweighs the enjoyable quality of life for the community.
Keith, Cardiff

I play squash twice a week and find it one the best forms of exercise i get. Problem with Squash, even tho it can be widely available to masses at the local council sport centres, the standard of the courts are rarely that high. Poor lighting, dirty and creaky floor boards hinder the game. If you wish to play on decent court that is maintained to high standard, there is a high price to pay. Firstly, membership fees then the court time fees. Like tennis, squash is seen as a upper class sport, and only people with money can/should play. We need to get away from this image for it to become more popular.
Mickesh Fox, Leeds

WHY IS SQUASH NOT AN OLYMPIC SPORT? And I'm appalled that Lambs is being closed down for flats...can't believe people are letting that happen
James Matthews,

Its not just squash that is mostly ignored by the media - the UK has been hugely successful in recent Olympic sailing events but the sport rarely gets a mention.
Susie, Andover, UK

Squash has always been overlooked by the public, the countries appetite for watching overpaid footballers and a desperate hope for success on the football pitch blind and blinker the majority. The achievements of Mr Nichol and other are truly spectacular, squash is the most unforgiving of sports that is punishng on both mind and body. However, the fact that squash has mostly been ignored is probably the reason for the success of our players; they play for the love of the game and not the money, they are also left alone by the press who relish in defeat rather more than they encourage our sportsmen and women.
Richard Allison, Shrewsbury - UK

The last time I remember squash getting a mention was when the English player, the aptly named Louise Botwright, upset and pleased everyone in equal measure by playing in a rather revealing outfit. A sad reflection, perhaps, but true.
Jon, Maldon, England.

I'm very sad to read about the demise of Squash, but not entirely surprised: I'm fortunate enough that my local gym has squash courts, and I try to make use of them as often as possible. When I play, I don't recall ever having seen any of the other courts actually in use - it's a terrible shame. Squash is a much more enjoyable sport than it might appear - easier to learn than tennis, with the added benefit that you can play all year round.
Stuart Robinson, Twickenham, Middlesex

I played it for 20 years but had to stop as my knees and ankles could not take it any more. Best way to get and keep fit, 40 mins of physical and tactical excitement.
Russ, London

If you get the knack of it (which means _not_ playing it like tennis) there is nothing close to squash for excitement and fitness. I think it is great for modern kids: my boys get a whole day's exercise in less than an hour and then can go back to their computer games.
Martyn Symmons, Cambridge

I've played squash for 33 years now and have seen a steady decline in young people coming into the game. This has increased rapidly over the past few years. Over the years we have in the NE region lost several club or courts at Leisure Centres where it is seen more profitable to turn squash courts into dance areas. Squash courts only have two people per 40mins whereas creating a dance or aerobics studio you can increase the numbers considerably. Football is promoted so much at the detrement of other sports!
Lesley Old, Cramlington Northumberland

The only squash players I've seen at my gym are the oafish, sneering blokes who just HAVE to walk down the corridors swinging their racquets against imaginary incoming balls whilst loudly congratulating each other on a "bloody good game" and "the form of the ball", before changing back into their sensible brown shoes and jackets. And to my surprise, the main coverage is in the Times and Telegraph! Colour me shocked!
Marcus, London, UK

I like the point about squash being a game with a strong and very basic appeal - are there not very ancient versions of it eg pelotte? Squash needs better TV coverage, so more people can get into it - it should be on the BBC. And as a member of the doomed Lambs Club, it would be great if an upturn in the fortunes of the sport arise out of the disaster of Lambs being sold off.
Kevin McLean, London

Sad story about Lambs and the all to apparent demise of squash....I've played for years and I now enjoy teaching my two young boys squash. Isn't it all about self-publicity (by the SRA) and reaching the young. I hadn't heard of mini-squash before -perhaps leaflets and posters are needed at all schools and sports centres?
John Ctrossman, Thatcham

I was a Lambs member for just over a year, recently leaving the club after the announcement that the developer had finally won permission to go ahead with the site's redevelopment. It was by far the most competitive club I've played at, with a large pool of players who were passionate about their sport. This is something you won't find in most fitness clubs. A sad end for a terrific facility.
Nigel Babich, London

I completely agree that there is a major problem with the closure of squash courts by fitness clubs - it is almost impossible to book a court now. Unfortunately my gym did exactly this and so I have taken up cycling instead while my racquet sadly gathers dust at home. Only a personal coaching session with Vicky Botwright would get me to go through the hassle of trying to find a free court now...
Jamie Mackenzie, London

I've been introducing squash to some of my friends in uni as the University courts are just across the road from us. It is rarely busy but everyone who play's it really enjoys it. I think the fact a purpose built court that is required stops it entering schools. Unlike a large astro turf that can be multipurpose. (tennis courts, basketball, football, Hockey etc) At my school we played but in the 6th form, there wasn't a school team and we needed to walk to the local gym to do it.
Roger Faires, Cardiff

It is far too difficult and expensive to get a game of squash in london. this is why the game remains the preserve of "aggressive yuppies".
mike johnston, london

Is'nt Peter Nichol from Inverurie,Scotland and therefore a Scottish squash player? Calling him British rather than English would be better.
Greg Lee, aberdeen

Great article. Too true that the rise of gym culture has done nothing for some minor sports - squash included. After moving here to Leeds, I have been surprised by the relative lack of good quality squash clubs and facilities in the area. It also surprises me that the BBC (and all the other major channels) are wiling to give such a lot of airtime to minority sports (eg skiing, swimming, snooker!, rowing, sailing) and devote no time at all in the scheules to a sport that is played much more regularly by the people of the UK. Also, why is the game abandoned on mainstream TV when rights to these tournaments could be bought relatively cheaply? Appalling.
Martin, Leeds

There's nothing like a game of Squash to relax after a busy day at the Office as hitting the small black ball is a great stress reliever. I've never been a Lab Rat and have no intention of ever becoming one. Why people are attracted to Gym's instead of playing Squash I don't know. Perhaps an improved marketing strategy is required to clear up the Heart Attack Image of Squash. We recently had Women's World Squash played at the Ulster Hall in Belfast and it was good to watch SQUASH Played at World class Level with our own Madeline Perry from Banbridge featured in the Match.
Ausitn Walker, Belfast

You can most certainly blame the media for the public ignorance to the sport. Had it been given some airtime be it weekends or primetime (not the graveyard shift), maybe people would have better knowledge of how good we've been for so long. As usual it's only at the end when it's too late do people sit up and take notice. Advertising and sponsorship plays a big part in this too, had this been picked-up and advertised correctly....who wouldn't want to watch a winner?? Peter Nicol, should been given some sort of award or recognition for his service to the sport. All of our other 'failures' seem to get a pat on the back for just taking part let alone winning! I am astounded to now be aware of Peter Nicol's achievements, considering he's dominated the sport for so long. It's fruitless being informed the no.1 facility is being demolished without having the chance to do something about it. This country can't be that botherd about the sport. Had it been, the public would've been informed of the fate of the facility. Funds would've been generated from somewhere to save it. Now its been relegated to sporting history as an insert that will fall out and be discarded and forgotten. It's a sad shame.
Leon Thomas, London

Squash is a very fast game. There is no suspense, or time to appreciate the skill of the players. I really enjoy watching squash live, on tv it is just as enjoyable if you know about spin and deflection, etc. Educate the viewer on the finer points. If one doesn't have the knowledge its like watching 10 mins from the middle of a soap, very clear and understandable!
Derek Frazer, wilts

Interesting that Peter Nicol should be described as "the English squash player" when in fact he is Scottish, born in Inverurie, and first attained his number one world ranking representing Scotland. He turned to England later in his career, lured by the promise of more money. The BBC becomes more Anglocentric by the day.
Scot, Dundee

Squash is one of the most enjoyable and physically active sports I have ever played. Im 22, despise gyms for their corporate agendas and once I started playing I have been hooked. It is very demanding and involves not only physcial strength but mental and tactical, strategic play as well. It is a thinking persons game and there are more than enough venues to play. I can think of five off the top of my head just in Exeter. There are so many leagues and players out there, and most importantly it is enjoyable and I am certainly not a yuppy, or rich businessman.
Edward Bird, Exeter

I can sympathise with this closure, as about a year ago the premier squash facility in Ulster, Kiltonga Leisure Centre (formally Kiltonga Squash Club) was closed by the local council. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/4872088.stm. Despite offers from members of the local community to manage the facility and cover the cost of running the centre the council in their usual short sited approach to anything good in the Borough have now sold it on for the site to be redeveloped. What a shame.
Stephen Glenn, Newtownards, County Down

Finally this has been covered by the BBC. I'm a regular player at Lambs and its frankly appalling that such an emminent club will be forced to close. Squash is one of the most enjoyable games you can play, its especially good for fitness and the rules and technicalities are easy so its very hard to understand its lack of popularity.I think Squash England should have pushed for this to be in 2012, especially as its something that England are actually pretty good at. Check out http://www.save-lambs-squash-club.co.uk/ for further details.
Alex Morgan, London

I wouldn't want squash to be popular, id never get a court in my local sports centre. But it sure is a fun game and people should give it a go
vhora, uk

I've never understood why squash isn't routinely shown on mainstream telly. I'd love to see it, having caught about 30 mins of it during the olympics coverage. I started playing about 8 years ago (although I now play racquetball instead which is very similar), and the squash club has become a wonderful social side to my life. Sadly, membership has fallen over the years and I do sometimes wonder if my club will last another year, so reading about the closure of Lambs doesn't fill me with hope. I'll never understand why it is that UK telly doesn't show these popular sports that we're good at, and win. Martial arts are the same - millions of people participate across the UK and we win stuff at international level, but does it get on telly ..... no, yet we have endless coverage of darts. Bit sad really.
AW, Rotherham

A major factor in the deciline of squash is the excesive court fees charged by Leisure centres and to a lesser extent clubs. Why does no-one understand this or care? The sport has priced itself out of the market.
Peter Tombleson, London

I played squash as a kid, was taught by my dad and joined a squash club. I really enjoyed playing it but at the time it was expensive. After a very long break from the game a friend suggested I join him in a game and it got my interest back. So much so I had to join my local gym as they have my only local court.
Neil, Liverpool, UK

Ringwoods local sports centre has now only one squash court. The other three have been converted into a dance studio ! Bournemouth's Littledown Centre has now closed its one remaining court. That becomes a childrens play area. What has happened to 'sport for all' ?
B. Richardson, Ringwood, England

The problem with squash is that there aren't any free public facilities to play it. Football can be played on any field. Free tennis courts exist over the country (albeit in poor to decent condition). Squash requires a specific building, with lighting and that costs money. Kids aren't going to play something they have to pay for, when they can be on a free tennis court or kicking a ball around with a bunch of mates. The last time I played squash was a few years ago; and it was 9 for a 45 minute game then. I'd hate to think what it is now.
Chris Powick, Surrey, UK

I recently started playing squash. It's an excellent sport, and a lot less annoying than tennis when you miss the ball as it's never far away (being an enclosed court). I have noticed that a big majority of the players seems to be over 40, i.e. still playing from the 80's/90's. There definitely needs to be some effort to get younger people interested.
Marc Richardson, Ipswich

So many people have never had the chance to play it - I started at university, and since leaving and moving to London I'm struggling to find anywhere that has squash courts, let alone being able to afford it. Its a great game and everyone I introduce it to loves it, I really hope it starts to get recognised soon
Lauren , Croydon

If people only gave squash a chance they would absolutley love it. I discovered the game at 18 and have never looked back, i too had that staid image of the game at school and never played it. By the time i left that school one court was now a gym and the other a store room! Indicitive of the lax attitude to an amazing sport. THe best description of it must be "chess on a court". A real battle of skill. Fitness obtained is great and you don't have to keep collecting the ball like tennis! I myself have got another 4 people hooked on the game and if more gave it a chance i'm convinced they would love it.
Phil, London

I've been playing squash for about 15 years, in that time the number of players in my local area has dropped every year. It appears that very few younger people play the game. I only became interested because my Father played, my school showed no interest in promoting it.
Kart, Hull, England

Equally, GB lads the world in waterskiing, another sport popular with the TV and the crowds 20 years ago. Waterskiing lost out when cigarette sponsorship was banned and never recovered. Skiers dream of it too becoming an Olympic sport, yet the IOC are cutting the number of participant sports, so the chances of Squash becoming an Olympic sport in 2016 are as great as waterskiing.
Colin, Kent

It's a real shame that Lambs Squash Club is closing. I played there regularly when I lived in London and it's one of the things I miss most about the City! It had a great bunch of friendly and enthusiastic players of mixed ability.
Ashley, Stirling, Scotland

Just try and book court in any number of clubs and health clubs to see the popularity of the game. They always seem to be fully booked. 45 mins on a court is worth hours on a treadmill.
TheSquashGod, Everywhere

Like Hockey or Badminton, it's a game I love to play but find it utterly dull to spectate upon. But - equally - in a day and age when Zara Phillips can win the SPOTY for a one-off bit of horse jumping, it's rather a travesty that in a truely global sport our top Squash players havn't got the recognition they deserve.
RichB, London

I'm pretty sure it was raquetball they were playing in Wall Street, rather than squash. Similar, but not the same.
Jeff Squash, London

My 2 youngest kids enjoyed squash but eventually gave up because of totally unreliable and disorganised coaching set up at the local club in Aberdeen. I am not surprised the sport is failing if you cannot properly support and encourage kids as they are the future. Another family with 2 kids who we shared the lift duties with also pulled out for the same reasons - net loss 4 kids between 11 and 16
David Cooper, ABERDEEN

The problem my local squash court has is that it is part of the sports center. They realise that they can fill the squash court with aerobics classes, or whatever the latest craze is, during peak hours. The maths is simple, 10 people generate more money than 2 people. Over the last year I've seen a resurgence of younger players appearing, possibly helped by a glass backed court. Previously it used to only be people over 40 years old playing.
Tony, Cambridge

A fantastic game to play which I picked up while living in Belgium. On my return I tried to join a local club however they never replied to my various e-mails or letters. I would recommend people to try it if they can, it is great fun and excellent exercise.
Scott, Southampton

Squash isn't alone in being a sport that we as a nation excel in, yet ignore, and marginalise by further reducing funding and facilities. The UK is ranked number 1 in another sport, has produced 2 world champions this year, and a further 8 since 2000. Any correct guesses? Probably not, but its gliding. An exciting mix of technology and skill to race gliders, like sailing boats, around courses, flying as far as 500kms, at speeds of up to 180mph. Yeah, clearly too boring for TV !
Jez Hood, London, UK

I don't understand it, I play every week and its fully booked where I play every week. I love it, its an exhilarating sport and its a travesty its not in the 2012 Olympics. I totally agree with the coorporate image problem, but if you came down to my local leisure centre in Brentford on a week night you would see people of all ages from all different backgrounds.
Mike Jarrey, London

I love playing squash and have been playing for about 3years. In the area I live in, getting onto a squash court during the school term time is impossible. Our local sports centre shut their court about 18 months ago(which used to open during term time) for refurbishment, and has still yet to reopen it. Then our next nearest court 6 miles away also shut for refurbishment, hence no squash facilities during the week. It is such a shame and certainly doesn't encourage the sport.
Liz , Rhyl, Denbighshire

Squash is an excellent game to play; not only is it very competitive but it's great for fitness. It's also remarkably popular as far as playing it is concerned as anyone else whose tried to book a squash court at Glasgow Universities sports centre would no doubt confirm! So yes, the lack of TV coverage, particularly considering the success of British players such as Nicol, is somewhat mystifying. It may not be as good a spectator sport at tennis but after watching the Commonwealth games it's certainly more entertaining than you might first imagine, not least because of the impressive feats of athleticism involved. Wow, I managed to write all that without moaning about Peter Nicol defecting to England (which was indicitive of the Scottish funding sources also having little confidence in the game for no apparant reason).
Alan, Glasgow, Scotland

I have met Peter Nicol and several other world-ranked players. Two of the coaches and a couple of players at the west end club at which I play are or have recently been world-ranked. A nicer, more self effacing and professional bunch of people would be hard to find. Why do we excel? Is it that Squash (being indoors) is perfectly suited to our changeable, unreliable weather? In any event, it is nothing short of a scandal that Olympic committees still Refuse to include it as a recognised sport - favouring beachball instead! The UK would walk home with several medals if we could change this one decision and that on its own would provide great benefit for the sport at all levels. All sportsmen and women should play a part in changing this status quo, for the greater good of sport in this country.
James, London

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