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As two of the five new sports making their Olympic debut in Tokyo 2020, sport climbing and karate are experiencing changes and facing challenges ahead of stepping onto the biggest sporting stage on the planet. Perhaps unexpectedly, these sports share some common internal conflicts, which have been brought to the fore in light of the Games. Natalie Berry examines the rocky road to Tokyo with input and insight from experts in both disciplines.
During the 129th International Olympic Committee Session in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 3rd August 2016, Sport Climbing was selected as part of a package of five new sports - alongside baseball/softball, surfing, skateboarding and karate - to be included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Since then, multiple changes to the structure of competition climbing, shifts in focus of its athletes and increased mainstream media interest in the sport have been observed. Given the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger), climbing might seem the perfect fit with its triple disciplines of Speed, Boulder and Lead. However, as a nascent Olympic sport, there has understandably been no shortage of teething problems and toys thrown out of the pram by athletes, organisations and recreational climbers alike.
I wondered how the road to Tokyo was going for the other four sports making their Olympic debut. Were there similar hurdles on the journey so far, or were things simpler? It's an interesting mix of lifestyle sports; surfing, skateboarding and - if you broaden the scope to the outdoor aspect, perhaps - sport climbing alongside more traditional activities; baseball/softball and karate.
Karate caught my attention, being at once steeped in tradition and a relatively mainstream activity known to many as a self-defence discipline popularised by martial arts films in the 70s and 80s. Chuck Norris and the Karate Kid aside, the sport's traditional, artistic roots hail from the Ryukyu Kingdom and focus on self-development (budō). Sport karate places emphasis on exercise and combative competition, whilst recreational karate in its modern Japanese style emphasises the psychological elements incorporated into a proper kokoro (attitude) such as perseverance, fearlessness, virtue and leadership skills, in addition to its wider appeal as self defence practice. Tradition vs modernity, art vs sport, recreation vs competition - the parallels between climbing and karate became clear.
Dr Chloe MacLean, a talented karateka whom I met during my university studies, provided the catalyst for a deeper look at how our respective sports were faring since their Olympic dream became a reality. In addition to being the current -55kg British Champion, Chloe has contributed to the karate world through her advocacy work. She is currently a Scottish Karate Governing Body (SKGB) director overseeing women and girls' interests. Chloe was the perfect sounding board for comparing the current issues gripping the climbing sphere and finding out what was going down in the karate world, so to speak: sparring matches and all.
The Road to Tokyo
Karate endured a longer fight before becoming an Olympic discipline, with six combat sports already in the ring: boxing, fencing, freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, judo and taekwondo. Chloe suspects that host country politics played the biggest role in determining their fate. 'I think taekwondo and Judo probably appear more 'sporty' as the sports practice started to change once they became Olympic,' she says. 'Judo is the biggest sport in Japan, so I imagine that's why judo became Olympic before karate.' I wanted to know whether changes to the proposed karate format or other elements had improved the sport's chances of finally achieving the Olympic dream.
'It was a painful journey for karate, just missing out in both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 selections,' Chloe admits. 'However, the World Karate Federation (WKF) remained focused and determined to learn our lessons from previous games.' A number of changes to karate were made over the three Olympic bids, she explains. 'Penalties for inactivity during certain matches were introduced to ensure exciting athletic displays, making the sport more spectator friendly, alongside tweaks to protective equipment to make them even more effective.' Interestingly, a greater focus on youth development was also initiated by the WKF, by including a 14-15 age category at their World and European Under 21 Championships, something which the IFSC also pushed by touting the 'age friendly' aspect of climbing. It paid off for both sports, as IOC President Thomas Bach announced:
"The five sports are an innovative combination of established and emerging, youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games."
'Getting into the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games now seems like fate,' Chloe says. 'There couldn't be a more appropriate country to be the first to show the drama and athleticism of karate to the global Olympic audience.'
I asked Graeme Alderson - IFSC Technical Delegate and somebody who's forgotten more about climbing's competition history than most people would ever know - about our Olympic journey.
'2020 was the first real chance for climbing to make the Olympics,' he says. 'It all hinged on the new idea of allowing the host city to propose a list of new sports. Previously the rule was 'one sport out, one sport in. Wrestling was removed, but was then allowed to reapply. The IOC realised that one out one in was never going to work, so they came up with the idea of new sports being proposed by the host city.'
However, that all five sports were selected was a surprise to almost everyone, including Graeme. ' We knew that we were amongst the favourites if one or two sports were to be chosen,' he admits. 'The climbing showcase at the Youth Olympic Games in China in 2014 was very important. But to have all five was unexpected.' IFSC President Marco Scolaris summed up the journey on announcement day in metaphor: 'We have reached the final hold of our unbelievable climb, but another climb awaits us.' Indeed - and so far it's not been without a crux or two.
The prospect of Olympic inclusion has divided climbers since indoor competitions were born and murmurs of eventually joining the Games resounded. Many are against the Olympics on ethical or environmental grounds, out of reluctance to allow big money to corrupt the activity, or doping concerns - to name but a few reasons. I wondered about karate's oriental philosophy. Despite the sport's combative and competitive reputation, would the Olympics add an unwelcome extra layer of corporate competition? Indoor competition climbing has long been a niche discipline of our equally niche sport (or is it a hobby?), often eschewed and criticised by traditionalists. The very notion of a climbing 'athlete' is a relatively new addition to our lexicon, and to many represents a juxtaposition of values.
Concerns about potential increased numbers at outdoor venues and the associated environmental and access issues in protected areas as a side-effect could be justified, if Olympic-inspired newcomers decide to take their climbing outdoors without appreciating the 'Climber's Code' of ethics and outdoor etiquette. Existing Olympic sports with foundations as outdoor lifestyle pursuits and which also place strong emphasis on freedom and adventure, such as snowboarding and freestyle skiing, have had a similar debate since the inclusion of halfpipe, slopestyle - and the recent addition of Big Air - into the Winter Olympic programme. In surfing - arguably the closest sport to climbing of the five new sports in terms of its outdoor ethos and community - the prospect of Olympic Surfing in 2020 is equally divisive. The Association of British Climbing Walls estimate that the number of climbers visiting independently (unsupervised) and the turnover generated by climbing walls increased by 16% last year and is expected to rise by a further 12% over the next. However, another estimate proposes that a staggering 71% of regular participants climb solely indoors, suggesting that indoor climbing is truly becoming a sport in its own right.
Overall, the karate community reacted positively to the announcement of Olympic inclusion. 'Our home nation governing bodies were delighted,' says Chloe. 'Gaining Olympic recognition was like gaining an appreciation of just how exciting and skilled our sports practice is. It's a fantastic opportunity to encourage the world to fall in love with the sport.'
However, not all are so optimistic. In a similar vein to climbing, the biggest concern facing some karate enthusiasts seems to revolve around questions of tradition, according to Chloe.
'People are worried about how the the types of training done week in, week out by karate clubs across the country might change, and whether this will transform karate from a martial art into a sport,' she explains. 'I personally don't think that will happen. The first World Karate Championships took place in Tokyo in 1970, and the same concerns were raised at the time, but the traditional elements of karate remain an integral part of karate training around the world.'
Much like climbers, only a small percentage of those who do karate decide to compete. Many of those who take part in karate do so because they want to get fitter, learn how to defend themselves, challenge themselves, pick up new skills and meet new people. Chloe doesn't envisage this changing because of the Olympics. 'There is, always has been, and always will be room for traditional karate clubs,' she says. 'There is still demand for the diversity of activities and pathways available in practising karate, and I don't think becoming Olympic will eradicate those elements of training and replace it with a purely competitive form. What I think the Olympics will do is give karate a platform to be seen by a wider audience and result in more karate practitioners - both sport and traditional.'
On the topic of funding, British karate's financial status appears similar to that of British competition climbing. As a non-mainstream sport, the GB Climbing Team has struggled over the years to compete for money from national sports agencies and has largely relied on self-funding by athletes, or money from parents for those at junior level. The recent announcement by UK Sport that the five new Olympic sports will receive funding - of which £630,000 will be put aside for Sport Climbing - was good news for both camps.
'For a long time we have been competing against the odds as karate in other countries is professional, or their athletes are largely funded,' says Chloe. 'In Britain we have multiple athletes who have achieved amazing feats with no funding, whilst many of those they compete against on the world stage are professional or receiving sufficient funding support. Now in Britain our athletes have the opportunity to receive finances that may even out the playing field.'
Mirroring Chloe's response is CEO of the BMC, Dave Turnbull. 'This is a great result for our top climbers and competition climbing as a whole in the run-up to Tokyo 2020,' he commented in a press release. 'We've had some world class results in recent years and it's great to see these achievements recognised through government funding. We look forward to working with the EIS to ensure our climbers have the very best possible chance of medal success.' Reigning and two-time IFSC Bouldering World Cup Champion Shauna Coxsey was named by UK Sport as the athlete with the highest medal potential in the GB Climbing Team and will be the only climber to benefit from the investment stream initially, with potential for others to earn their portion of the pot in time.
An Olympic Flaming
While one would hope that organisations involved in steering the Olympic Sport Climbing ship wouldn't succumb to corruption and malfaisance, the climbing community has already seen fit to keep the IFSC in line with regard to some key financial decisions. When the signing of a 3-year subscription deal with US-based sports livestreaming company Flosports to host IFSC World Cup climbing events was announced, competition fans were quick to call them out, resulting in a petition and eventual climb-down, so to speak. 'Competitions have now become less accessible to people around the world – not everyone can travel internationally to physically attend events or afford a costly recurring fee,' Peter Crane's petition read. Conversely, the latest partnership deal signed by the IFSC with Japan Airlines has been welcomed as a positive and more appropriate step.
Many aspects of climbing have the potential to become more professional, but some of the foundations risk getting lost as the Olympics begin to shape key decisions. As pointed out by Austrian multi-time Boulder World Cup Champion Kilian Fischhuber in a UKC article, one victim on the road to Tokyo was the 2017 European Bouldering Championships (EBCH). The Boulder World Cup was effectively 'doubling up' as a European Championship event, bringing with it the associated unfairness of having separate qualifying groups. IFSC Europe failed to source a viable alternative for the EBCH and were reluctant to cancel. Although it was clearly explained that the EBCH would be an unfair event for their athletes, the National Federations voted against cancellation in a protective measure to improve funding application success. Otherwise, no EBCH would mean no combined ranking and therefore no parameters for selecting Olympic contenders and funding recipients. 'If you neglect the grassroots, everything stands on an unstable base', Kilian told Austria Climbing's Ben Lepesant, before warning 'The International Federation has a lot of opportunities to make more mistakes.'
A mistake that attracted a backlash from the British climbing community in July 2016 was the infamous British Mountaineering Council rebranding proposal, in which the governing body announced a name change to 'Climb Britain', without - many argued - appropriate member consultation and at the expense of its membership. The BMC strongly denied accusations that the change had been implemented to move away from its traditional mountaineering roots and favour competition climbing to reap the financial benefits of Olympic inclusion from funding agencies, but some weren't convinced. In August 2016, the Japan Mountaineering Association also announced plans to change its name to the Japanese Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Association, which was ultimately confirmed in April 2017.
The Olympics is tainted with stories of corruption and dubious decisions greased by attractive payoffs, concerning sponsorship, doping and 'passport swapping.' This is a danger for any budding Olympic sport, especially one so steeped in history, as some climbers cling on to a more traditional, wholesome image of climbing predicated on mountains and merriment. Chloe mentions that some karate practitioners have also been hesitant to cheer the move into the Olympics on financial grounds. 'There are worries surrounding the potential influx of money coming into the sport and leading towards unequal grounds for competing and/or corruption,' she says.
Fitting the Olympic Mould
Inevitably, gaining Olympic status has morphed many a sport into an unrecognisable form. Competition climbing is undergoing significant change, which we'll discuss shortly. But what about karate? From a layman's perspective, I already knew that there are various disciplines within karate - much like climbing - and that belts and dans marked ability level in a grading system - sounds familiar - whilst competition categories are split by sex and weight (the former applies to climbing, the latter would be advocated by some, I'm sure). Chloe explained the two competitive disciplines of kumite - ' fighting whereby we score points based on hitting the body, back, head or neck of our opponent with kicks or punches' - and kata - 'a collection of around 60-100 karate movements pieced together and performed by karate athletes on their own as perfectly as possible, marked like diving, by conformance to set criteria.'
At World and European Championships, kumite is currently divided into five weight categories per sex, and one category per sex for kata, alongside a team event for both kata and kumite and each sex, Chloe explains. But what about the Olympics? Will the categorisation change in 2020? In Tokyo, karate will retain the individual kata events for each sex, but will have only three individual weight categories per sex for kumite. This change could cause a major issue for Chloe: 'At the moment the official weight categories for the Olympics have not been announced, so I don't know if the category I usually fight in will be there as an option!'
Chloe hopes that the categories will be decided as a sliding scale (-53, -60, +60KG) which would allow all of the world's top class competitors to fit into one of the categories, rather than selecting exclusive categories (49-53kg, 57-60kg and 64-68kg), 'as in women's boxing when it entered the Olympics in 2012,' she adds. The former would give everyone a chance to compete, the latter would leave some aspiring Olympians stuck in limbo between categories, unable to compete. An additional concern with exclusive groups would be the temptation for weight-excluded athletes to take drastic, unhealthy measures to meet the criteria. 'I can imagine there might be a good number of athletes trying to cut or put on weight to become eligible,' Chloe says.
In light of the 2020 Games, both the format of competition climbing and even its name have been subject to change: its new Olympic moniker is 'Sport Climbing' - arguably a misuse of the existing term for outdoor climbing on bolts - and the format will consist of a previously unheard of (if you ignore the overall annual 'Combined' rankings) and widely contested 'triathlon' format of Lead, Boulder and Speed with an overall winner decided on performance across all three disciplines. The IFSC explains the system in an online document as follows:
- The "single" discipline format (Speed, Boulder, Lead) format shall be the same as the IFSC single discipline Event format
- The discipline sequence is: First Speed, then Bouldering, then Lead.
- The Combined Event consists of 2 rounds (Qualifications and Finals), both comprising all disciplines
- All Athletes (20 men and 20 women) participate in the first round
- The six best athletes qualify for the finals.
- The Athlete's score is given by multiplying the Athlete's ranking (place) in each discipline. The lower the score the better.
- A ranking is produced after each round (Qualifications and the Finals).
Faster, Higher, Stronger... Better?
Most athletes specialise in lead, bouldering or both, and dismiss speed climbing, with some exceptions in countries where speed is popular, such as Russia and Poland. Czech climber Adam Ondra may be the only athlete in history to have won the World Championships in both lead and bouldering in the same year, but he isn't so keen on speed climbing and consequently, the Olympic Combined format. 'I think speed climbing is kind of an artificial discipline,' he commented in a video. Speed climbing involves racing on a route of exactly homologous layout, which is replicated in various climbing walls around the world and changed every four years. 'This doesn't have much in common with the climbing philosophy in my opinion,' says Adam, before explaining that he will need to 'think a lot' about whether to participate in or boycott the 2020 event.
What's more, there's the question of speed's accessibility - there are only a handful of speed facilities in the UK and some dotted around the globe, but if an athlete can't practise the route on their home turf, they must travel.
In a recent UKC interview, GB star Molly Thompson-Smith expressed concern for the format discriminating against the best climbers in each discipline. 'The proposed format may lose some of the best athletes in certain disciplines as their performance in others isn't strong enough to see them through the selection stages,' she explains. 'For example, if the Olympic speed record were to be much slower than the World Record because the World no.1 speed climber wasn't a good enough boulderer or lead climber, then that wouldn't showcase the best talents of our sport, which is disappointing.' In the trial run of the Olympic Combined format in Innsbruck, Austria at the 2017 World Youth Championships, senior Dutch competitor and routesetter Jorg Verhoeven was unsure what to make of the slow-paced competition.
Quibbles aside, the 2017 season saw an influx of top athletes in both lead and boulder poised on the starting pads and racing for the first time in practise for the Combined format. As Shauna Coxsey told BBC Sport, competitors are warming to the idea of becoming more rounded athletes after realising that specialisation would be a limiting factor in the Games. 'I'm now really confident that adding the two extra disciplines can actually make me a better athlete,' she explained.
Kilian Fischhuber also commented on routesetting challenges, the lack of excitement and over-saturation of rounds in Innsbruck. 'In the Combined, the routesetting is even more important than before. Moreover, the general rehearsal showed how boring the whole thing is.' Many young athletes remarked on how tiring and intense the multi-day, multi-discipline event was, and that perhaps the order of Speed-Boulder-Lead should be reconsidered.
On the topic of routesetting, American climbing writer Andrew Bisharat wrote a post on his blog, Evening Sends, expressing concern about what he calls 'setter bias': the potential for routesetters to set problems to the strengths - or indeed weaknesses - of a particular climber. No other sports come to mind that have a similarly human-designed course created by individuals who know the morphological and technical idiosyncracies of many competitors intimately. Variations in downhill mountain biking, BMX, and skateboarding track styles are comparable to some degree, but arguably not as competitor-specific as some beta-heavy boulder problems might be. This subjective element weakens the objective scoring process of the Olympics, Andrew writes. 'Climbing difficulty by itself is just too subjective—and when you add in the fact that a human being with human emotions is designing these subjective challenges not only for competitors, but with exact competitors in mind, how does that not undermine our faith in the very promise of fair competition?' To account for this, Andrew suggests implementing the use of robots with inbuilt artificial intelligence to build objective problems. 'It sounds ridiculous,' he admits, 'but is it really?'
Changes to the existing structure and format within each individual discipline have caused issues too: climbing time in both lead and boulder events has been either reduced or altered to suit TV schedules and increase spectator appeal. Finals will now take place separately for men and women, rather than both groups running simultaneously. A more significant adaptation for live TV was introduced last season: the '4 minutes+' interval per boulder was capped at 4 minutes total time and the lead interval reduced from 8 to just 6 minutes. Issues were legion in the 2017 World Cup series, as contending climbers were unadapted to the change and called down in lead events or forced to drop off problems despite being capable of reaching higher. A step backwards, or simply something that competitors and audiences will adapt to with time? "Some of the last-second tops in bouldering have been great to watch," Graeme Alderson comments. The scoring system in Bouldering is also changing from the start of the 2018 season. The IFSC announced a new system in January that 'will greatly improve the understanding of positions for a non-endemic audience and allow for predictions during competitions.' The "Bonus" hold will take back its original name of "Zone", and the weighting of the scoring sequence will now be:
1. Number of Tops (T)
2. Number of zones (z)
3. Number of attempts to Top (A)
4. Number of attempts to zone (shown only in case of ties)
Karate is perhaps more accustomed to regular changes: the format of kata and kumite competition changes every two years. Chloe explains: 'People believe a lot of these changes are to make karate more spectator-friendly for the non-expert audience that the Olympics brings. Kumite has seen changes in scoring and warning systems to keep it more exciting. Another important change was to include body armour as a compulsory piece of equipment for kumite competition. In kata, a debate is ongoing about removing the current flag-based scoring system to a numerical points system resembling that of diving.'
While I can't imagine the IFSC introducing a compulsory helmet-wearing rule, there are obvious parallels. But how do karatekas respond to these changes?
'There is always an initial discomfort with the changes, but over time people get used to competing that way,' Chloe says.'I think the changes to encourage more action and less passivity are good – it makes fights exciting and asks for real stamina from the athletes. The body armor has probably been the rule that has had the most backlash – competitors don't like wearing them as they are uncomfortable, expensive, and many people don't feel they actually add any necessary protection. Some believe the ruling came in to make the sport look safer to an audience, and more similar to sports like taekwondo.'
Living the (Olympic) Dream
I wanted to know whether Chloe had witnessed any changes in the public perception of karate and its appeal to big brands since the 2020 announcement - have karate athletes attracted more mainstream sponsorship, for example? It's no secret that corporate entities such as Red Bull have increased their appetite for alignment with climbing and outdoor adventure pursuits in recent years, not to mention Ashima Shiraishi's controversial partnership with Coca-Cola last year, which attracted a major pushback from the climbing community on social media, in response to what some described as a bittersweet collaboration (it's worth noting, though, that Coca-Cola is a Worldwide Olympic Partner). Mainstream media interest in competition climbing has also grown, with regular news reports, interviews and social media clips doing the rounds. In my naivety, I don't imagine karate is tied to the same dirtbag philosophy or lifestyle approach that climbing is predicated on. Major sports clothing labels or SkySports Scholarships come to mind, but not beverage companies with big budgets.
'As far as I am aware, karate becoming Olympic hasn't attracted sponsorship from big brands in Britain,' says Chloe. 'I think its profile is still relatively low-key. We have however seen a growth in interest from martial arts/combat sports websites, TV channels and broadcasters.' Climbing's appeal as a lifestyle sport likely makes it more commercial and sellable than karate. Images of scenic mountains, adventure tourism and travel are conjured up in Chloe's mind as an outsider to our sport; impressions which have clearly pointed marketers and advertisers towards climbing in a range of adverts recently - from Honda cars to Ralph Lauren aftershave and TRESemmé shampoo. 'I think climbing strongly evokes these images, they're romantic in a sense,' she says. 'I don't think the general public quite know what karate is yet, and even if they did, I think people get put off in thinking it is a violent or overly aggressive sport!'
However, Chloe is quick to point out the aspects of karate that people don't see. 'I think Karate is much more of a lifestyle sport than people imagine,' she asserts, 'and involves a lot more self-development and self discipline than people think too – it's definitely not just about hitting people! It's so different to existing Olympic martial arts like Judo and Taekwondo, so if people recognise this, perhaps we might see more commercial sponsorship entering the sport."
Making the Cut
The 2017 Plenary Assembly discussed options for the Sport Climbing selection process last year, but nothing was finalised. The IFSC website currently states that 'All the athletes competing in the Olympic Games shall qualify through an (Olympic) Combined format event.'
Karate's Olympic organising committee are also yet to agree on a selection process, but the likelihood is that some aspiring Olympians may be outpriced by demanding criteria, as Chloe explains. 'It is believed that the four continental champions within the year running up to the Tokyo Games will automatically qualify and the remaining spaces for each category will be determined by ranking points gathered at 'K1' events by winning matches/medalling – these are like the Diamond League of karate,' she says. 'In order to qualify you need to earn as many points as possible, which means athletes will have to compete at as many events as possible, which in turn means athletes will either need to go semi/professional, get funding that enables them to train and compete or - simply put - have enough cash to be able to afford Olympic qualification.' Although providing athletes with multiple opportunities to prove themselves, I can't imagine such a process going down well in the climbing world, either. Before considering any Olympic selection event between countries, there is the question of national-level development and selection for any such event.
Ian Dunn, GB Junior Lead Team Manager, explained the pathways that have been organised with the Olympics in mind. 'The coaching team have implemented a LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development) model and created the GB Development Squad to cover the time between the Youth Climbing Series to the Senior GB Team, this includes both Junior Lead and Bouldering Teams. The Senior Teams and the World Class Programme are the upper end of this model.'
But what about speed climbing - the outlier of the three disciplines in the UK? We currently boast just a handful of facilities, but our struggle is matched by other - often bigger - countries with limited access to a practice wall. 'Speed climbing is part of the Development Squad, initially as a way of introduction,' says Ian. 'We are not alone in our lack of facilities, though - for example Ashima Shiraishi's nearest speed wall is three hours away from New York and requires a flight!'
Going for Gold
With 871 days to go before the 2020 Games, there will no doubt be more turbulent times ahead for the five sports making their debut. It's reassuring to know that karate is facing similar challenges, and perhaps surprising that there is more in common between these sports than initially meets the eye. Change is a price that athletes, spectators and amateur climbers will have to pay in some form or another, but so far most of these changes have caused issues that are endemic to the IFSC, athletes and governing bodies. Throwing our hat into the Olympic ring(s) doesn't have to mean throwing away our traditions and history; climbing's multifarious nature is an advantage in this respect. As more money pours into climbing and we deal with the increased profile that comes with it, we have a responsibility to preserve its core values and the outdoor environment in which many of us practise. Whilst figures quoted earlier support the notion that indoor climbing is a sport in its own right, this doesn't mean that transitioning to outdoor climbing should be reserved for the privileged few who discovered it before the hype.
Ian Dunn sums it up well. 'If the young climbers I work with now in the GB Junior Team are still climbing outside in 40 years, then I will have done a great job. I hope they will be.'
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