Ancient Olympic Athletes

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runners at the Panathenaic games in 530 BC
The Greeks saw competition as a way to earn respect and honor. They considered an athlete to be, in the words of the Historian Pindar, one "who delights in the toil and cost," and the Greek word for athlete, in fact, was the same as the one for "miserable" and "wretched." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “ During competition and training, athletes were usually naked and covered with olive oil to keep off the dust. They trained in the gymnasium or xystos (covered colonnade), often coached by past victors. The Greeks believed that their love for athletics, among other things, distinguished them from non-Greeks, and only Greek citizens were allowed to compete in the games.”[Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002, \^/]

Thucydides wrote in “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” (c. 404 B.C.): “The Lacedaemonians (Spartans) were the first who in their athletic exercises stripped naked and rubbed themselves over with oil. But this was not the ancient custom; athletes formerly, even when they were contending at Olympia, wore loin-cloths, a practice which lasted until quite lately, and still prevails among Barbarians, especially those of Asia, where the combatants at boxing and wrestling matches wear loin-cloths. [Source: Fred Morrow Fling, ed., “A Source Book of Greek History,” Heath, 1907, pp. 47-53]

Greek athletes were not all that different from their modern counterparts. They both had secrets to success. In 668 B.C., a Spartan athlete attributed his victory in the 200-meter dash to a diet of dried figs. There was also pressure and high expectations. One athlete called an Olympic victory "the wreath or death." They also said similar things. When asked what will be right way to live, the wrestler and philosopher Plato said, "A man should spend his whole life at 'play.'"

But not everyone admired these ancient Olympians. Euripides wrote "Of all the countless evils throughout Hellas none is worse than the race of athletes...In youth they strut about in splendor, the idols of the city, but when bitter old age come upon them they are cast aside like worn out cloaks." Galen, one of the founders of medicine, added "they spend their lives in over-exercising, in over-eating, and over sleeping like pigs. Hence they seldom live to old age and if they do they are crippled and liable to all sorts of diseases.”μ

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Requirements and Rules for Ancient Olympic Athletes

Boxing scene
Athletes were required to be freeborn males of Greek descent. Contrary to myth, Olympic athletes were not amateurs. They were often well paid and backed by sponsors, patrons or head's of state and spent all of their time training. Top athletes were given money, tax exemptions and draft deferment. They traveled around with entourages and were paid appearance money as well as prize money. Although they competed for their home city states it was not uncommon for some to switch allegiance for money. The same held true for sought after coaches.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “For the athletes it wasn't just a matter of showing up on the day of the competition and performing. 30 days before the games began; athletes had to register in person before the ten Olympic judges. Many would be accompanied by their personal trainers and coaches. The first thing that the judges did was to ensure that the athlete presenting himself was truly Greek and eligible to compete. The second thing was to make certain that those who wanted to compete were capable of doing so at the highest level. To that end, the judges conducted trials and workouts calculated to weed out those at the weaker end of the spectrum. The competitors ate together at a common mess to ensure that no one gained an advantage with secret recipes and magic potions. It is interesting to note that there were no team sports at those Olympics. [Source: Canadian Museum of History ]

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “Near Coroebus is buried Orsippus who won the footrace at Olympia by running naked when all his competitors wore girdles according to ancient custom. They say also that Orsippus when general afterwards annexed some of the neighboring territory. My own opinion is that at Olympia he intentionally let the girdle slip off him, realizing that a naked man can run more easily than one girt. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

Ancient Greek Olympics and Nudity

Olympians competed in the nude. In some competitions and during the opening and closing ceremonies they often covered themselves in perfumed oils. Even jockeys wore nothing. Wrestlers in the nude often had their foreskin tied over the tip of the penis for protection. The only exception was the charioteers who wore long white robes. Nudity was seen as a way of making all competitors equal by stripping social ranks they could otherwise express with their clothes.

Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: “'Sow naked, plough naked, harvest naked', the poet Hesiod (a contemporary of Homer) advises. Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: He might have added 'compete in the Games naked', for that is usually understood to be the standard practice among the ancient Greeks. Some dispute this, for although the visual evidence for it - the painted decorations on vases - generally shows athletes performing naked, all sorts of other people (eg soldiers departing for war, which they would presumably have done clothed) are also shown unclad. [Source: Stephen Instone, BBC, February 17, 2011|::|]

“Also, some vases do show runners and boxers wearing loin-cloths, and Thucydides says that athletes stopped wearing such garments only shortly before his time. Another argument is that it must have been impractical to compete naked. On balance, however, it is generally thought probable that male athletes were naked when competing at the Games. |::|

The athletes competed in front of an almost all male audience. There is some confusion as to whether women could attend events. There are accounts of women being threatened with being tossed from a cliff if they were discovered in the stands although the punishment it seems was never carried out but the same source also described a special seat for a woman priest. Most scholars believe married women were barred although unmarried women and girls were allowed in the stands.

In the first few Olympics the athletes competed with their clothes on and no one is exactly sure why they decided get rid of them. Some historians say the precedent was set in a race in 720 B.C. in which Orsippus of Megara lost his shorts in the middle of the race and won anyway. Other historians recall a runner who was leading a race but tripped and fell and lost when his shorts slipped down.μ

Olympic Training in Ancient Greece

The “ gymnasium “ (derived from the Greek word for “place to exercise naked”) was where the athletes worked out. It was usually nothing more than an open area adjacent to the sacred grove. Athletes arrived with bags with oil flasks and strigils used for scraping their body clean after exercising. There were special training facilities for athletes. One of the most famous in the Italian colonies was Krotons. The athletes from this city were so adept that during one Olympics the top seven finishers in one footrace were Krotoniates. "Not only did Kroton have the best athletes, it had the most beautiful women," one historian told National Geographic, "The great painter Zeuxis came here to find models for a painting of Helen of Troy."

The strigil was a strange-looking device usually made of bronze. It was used mostly by athletes to scrape dirt and oils off their bodies after competitions and training. The athletes did this rather than wash with soap. The strigil looked sort of like a long spoon with the spoon part stretched and elongated and bent forward and the handle stretched and bent backwards. Strigils first appeared in Greek art in the 6th century B.C. and became symbols of athletes, some of whom where found to have them buried with them in ancient graves. One vases shows an athlete presenting his strigil to a dog to lick.

Athletes used oil to protect their skin form injuries, reduce sweating and make wrestlers slippery to their opponents. Some have suggested it was also done to make their bodies more aesthetically pleasing for the audience.

A typical Greek gymnasium was an open court surrounded by columns with areas for running, jumping and throwing and a covered area for wrestling and bathing. Young men often spent a greater part of their day in the gymnasium, occupying themselves as much with chatting and hanging out as working out. It is no surprise that Sophists conducted their first meetings in gymnasiums and Plato set up his Academy and Aristotle set up his Lyceum next to gymnasiums.

Athletes in the ancient Olympics ate honey for energy and meat for strength. Boxers used primitive punching bags and head-gear for training. Massage was an important element of training. One reason the athletes performed and trained in the nude is because it was easier to massage oils into their body, which was regarded as a key to victory.

On the subject of training too hard Galen wrote: “perhaps someone will say that they have a blessing in the pleasure of their bodies. But how can [that be] for during their careers athletes are in constant pain and suffering not only because of their exercise but also because of their forced feedings? And when they reach the age of retirement, their bodies are essentially...crippled.”

Olympic Rules and Cheaters in Ancient Greece

The Olympic events were presided over by judges who wore indigo robes and flower garlands. Everyone had to submit to the local laws of Olympia when they entered the competition. A great deal of effort was made to ensure that competitors fought on equal footing regardless of their wealth, social standing or popularity. Before the competitions, athletes were required to take an oath on a slice of boar’s meat that they had not used any magic to boost their performance. There were stories about Olympic athletes who took psychedelic mushrooms of a competitive edge.

The “ hysplex “ was a complicated devise designed to prevent false starts. Runners that made false starts were beaten by the official whip bearers. Cheaters were fined and the money was used to build "Zanes," statues that bore the name and offense of the cheater so he would go down in infamy for his humiliation. Some of the statues were built with money taken in from fines taken from athletes caught taking bribes.

The ancient Olympics were not immune from corruption and scandal. In the Olympics in 396 B.C., sporting judges were punished for making dishonest decisions. Later the boxer Eupulos was caught paying a rival to throw a bout. Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great's father, payed Olympic organization large sums of money to allow Macedonians, regarded as Barbarians, to participate. He also bought off rivals in chariot races. The legendary Prince of Pelops fixed the race against his main rival by hiring someone to sabotage his chariot axle by substituting a wax fittings for a metal one, causing the chariot to break apart in mid race, killings it driver, a rival king. Pelops in turn won the hand of a beautiful woman who became his wife.

In 66 A.D. the Roman Emperor Nero arrived at the Olympics with a retinue of 5000. He entered several events, and with his bodyguards standing ominously close, he won them all. During the chariot race he fell off his mount and all the other contestants stopped until he got back on. He later went on to win the race even though he did not finish.◂

Olympic Winners in Ancient Greece

Diagoras of Rhodes
The winners at the Olympics were awarded an olive wreath cut from a sacred tree. It was the equivalent of a gold medal. In the Nemean Games they received a crown of fresh celery. In the Delphi Games the crown was made of bay leaves. At the Isthmia Games it was made from dry celery There was no second or third prize, nor were records important. The only thing that mattered was winning. The exception was the Panathenaea at Athens There, prizes were given to the winner and the top five runners up. Some of the prizes could be quite lavish. On scholar estimated the winner of the boy’s foot race won an amphorae filed with 1,944 liters of olive oil. The amphora themselves were decorated with images of the event won and were like trophies.

It was the obligation of the victor's city state to give the victor a grant usually around five times the average wage of a working man. Winners were also given free meals, the best seats at festivals and exemptions from taxes. Statues were erected in their honor. All around Olympia were statues of athletes among the statues of gods and goddesses. Some winners were given a pension for life. By some estimates an Olympic victory could be worth half a million dollars in today's money. Some Olympic winners were extolled with odes, given slaves and oxen and provided with free food for life. A common prize was 100 olive-oil filled amphorae (olive oil was very valuable in ancient times). When the winner returned home he was garlanded again with wreath of olive leaves and a statue was raised in his honor. Sometimes a hole was punctured in the city's fortification with the understanding being that the victor was so strong he would deter any incursions.

Ancient Greek Poems for Olympic Winners

An ode for the winner of boy’s footrace in 460 B.C. went:
Now for the Alkimedon: blessed with victory
at Olympia, by the slopes of Kronose.
On first sight he was splendid; sure
he proved his beauty in the test.
Triumphant form each bout.
He puts his homeland on the heralds’ lips’
“Aegina of the long oars!”“

By contrast losers sometimes came home in humiliation. A lament for one unsuccessful athlete went: “the loser’s hateful return, the jeering voices, the furtive back alleys.”

On winning itself Pindar of Thebes wrote in the late 5th century B.C.:
In athletic games the victor wins the glory his heart desires
as crown after crown is placed on his head.
when he wins with his hands or swift feet.
There is a divine presence of a judgment of human strength.
Only two things, along with prosperity, advance life’s sweetest prize:
if a man has success and then gets a good name” .
Don’t expect to become Zeus. You have everything
if a share of these two blessings comes your way” .

Famous Ancient Greek Athletes

Theogenes was a popular athlete. One night one of his enemies was killed while trying to flog his statue, which fell on him. The statue was tried and found guilty of murder and dumped in the sea. The next year Thasos experienced an unprecedented famine. When the Thasos elders consulted the Oracle of Delphi they were told to bring back the political exiles. When this didn't work it was suggested that maybe the exiles referred to was the statue of Theogenes. The statue was then dredged up, replaced and chained down so it wouldn't fall over again. The famine soon ended and people returned to worship the statue for another five hundred years. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Leonidas of Rhodes won a record 12 running titles in the ancient Olympic games between 164-152 B.C.

Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: Milo of Croton, in southern Italy, would come high on anyone's list of greats. He was Olympic champion in the men's wrestling six times in the sixth century, besides winning once in the Olympic boy's wrestling, and gaining seven victories in the Pythian Games. He is said to have carried his own statue, or even a bull, into the Olympic arena, and to have performed party tricks such as holding a pomegranate without squashing it and getting people to prize open his hand - nobody could. [Source: Stephen Instone, BBC, February 17, 2011|::|]

“Then there is Leonidas of Rhodes, who in the second century B.C. won all three running events at four consecutive Olympics. Another great Rhodian athlete was Diagoras, who in the fifth century B.C. won at all four of the major Games (Olympic, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian). His three sons and two of his grandsons were also Olympic champions. |::|

“Superhuman heavyweights were regarded with special awe. Cleomedes, a fifth-century Olympic boxing champion, killed an opponent at the Olympics, was disqualified, went mad and smashed up a school. Not a recipe for special reverence, you might think. But the Greeks regularly explained abnormal feats and states of mind by saying that something divine, or a god, had entered whoever was affected in this way, and Cleomedes ended up receiving semi-divine honours as a hero. |::|

Milo, the Great Olympic Wrestling Champ

hero cult
Milo, who lived around 500 B.C., was perhaps the most famous Olympic athlete during ancient times. He the Olympic wrestling champion six times. In 520 B.C. he was the only wrestler. Everyone else it seems was afraid to challenge him. In addition to his wrestling skills, he was also known for his appetite. In a typical meal it was said he ate 7 pounds of meat, 7 pounds of bread and a gallon of wine. Once he reportedly carried a full grown bull around the stadium, then ate it one day. To show off his strength he used to have chords wrapped around his head and bust them by holding his breath and expanding the veins of his temples. But despite his awesome powers he died after being eaten alive by a pack of wolves when he got his hand stuck in a tree.◂

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” (c. A.D. 175): Milo of Croton won six victories for wrestling at Olympia, one of them among the boys; at the Pythian he won six among the men and one among the boys. He came to Olympia to wrestle for the seventh time, but did not succeed in mastering Timasitheus, a fellow-citizen who was also a young man, and who refused, moreover, to come to close quarters with him. It is further stated that Milo carried his own statue into the Altis. His feats with the pomegranate and the quoit are also remembered by tradition. He would grasp a pomegranate so firmly that nobody could wrest it from him by force, and yet he did not damage it by pressure. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“He would stand upon a greased quoit, and make fools of those who charged him and tried to push him from the quoit. He used to perform also the following exhibition feats. He would tie a cord round his forehead as though it were a ribbon or a crown. Holding his breath and filling with blood the veins on his head, he would break the cord by the strength of these veins. It is said that he would let down by his side his right arm from the shoulder to the elbow, and stretch out straight the arm below the elbow, turning the thumb upwards, while the other fingers lay in a row. In this position, then, the little finger was lowest, but nobody could bend it back by pressure.”

Pheidippidesa and the Ancient Greek Marathon

20120222-Kosan_atlet.jpg The marathon is an event run in the modern Olympics. It was not part of the ancient Olympics. It commemorates an event, though, that occurred in ancient Greece. The marathon story is based on an account of the “ Battle of Marathon in The Histories” by Heredotus. It was written about 50 years after the battle took place.

The Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. is one the most famous battle in ancient Greece. A Persian force of 20,000 men and a fleet of 600 ships landed on the Plains of Marathons, about. 25 miles from Athens. They were defeated by the Athenian army, under the command of general Miltaides, even though it was outnumbered six to one. Miltaides organized his forces so that its strength was in the wings.

When the Athenians learned that the Persians had arrived,Pheidippides, an Athenian runner, ran 150 miles to Sparta to seek the help of Sparta. The Spartans didn't participate because they were holding a religious ceremony at the time. The Athenian army, which was camped out in the foothills on the edge of the Marathon plain, was forced to fight against the Persians without any help from the Spartans

After the Persian army was routed the panic-stricken Persians retreated to their boats. This time Pheidippides ran 26.3 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians and then fell dead after he gave the message: Rejoice! We conquer!"

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “When the Persians had landed in Attica Philippides was sent to carry the tidings to Lacedaemon. On his return he said that the Lacedacmonians had postponed their departure, because it was their custom not to go out to fight before the moon was full. Philippides went on to say that near Mount Parthenius he had been met by Pan, who told him that he was friendly to the Athenians and would come to Marathon to fight for them. This deity, then, has been honored for this announcement. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

Revising the Marathon Story

The story of Pheidippides, who has also been referred to by other names, is generally believed to be an amalgamation of separate incidences. The run to Athens apparently involved the army, which after winning at Marathon, hustled back to defend the city against the remnants of the Persians, who had regrouped in their ships and planned an attack that never materialized.

The Marathon to Athens run appears to be a myth. Herodotus described the 150 mile run to Sparta by Pheidippides but said nothing about running to Athens and dropping dead. After the Persians held Marathon they tried to attack Athens while it was unguarded but the Athenians returned home to repel the attack. The Pheidippides running to Marathon to Athens appears to be an embellishment of that story. If the story is true it means that Pheidippides about 325 miles in less than a week: 150 miles from Marathon to Sparta, 150 miles back to Marathon, where he likely participated in the battle, then ran to Athens. No wonder he dropped dead.

The legend of the Pheidippides provided the inspiration for French scholar Michael Breal to suggest adding a "marathon" race to the program of the 1896 Olympics to his friend Pierre de Coubertin. The distance between Marathon to Athens is about 24 miles but the distance was extended to 26 miles and 385 yards at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London so Queen Victoria could watch the race from the window of her palace.

History books have the battle and the run taking place in September, when Greece is relatively cool, but reexamination of historical and astronomical data indicated that the run more likely took place in August, when Greece is very hot. This would explain even better why Phidippides dropped dead. The original September 12th date of the run was determined in the 19th century by German scholar August Boeckh based on Herodotus’s accounts, which includes the phases of the moon. Scholars at Texas State University reexamined the data and came up with an August 12th date based on the fact Boeckh failed to take into consideration that the Spartan calendar, from which the date was determined, was one month different than Athenian calendar.

Women in the Ancient Greek Olympics

Spartan woman
Nearly all the competitions in the Olympics were between males, although sometimes unmarried girls, divided into different age groups, competing in running events at a separate sporting event called the Heraea held at a different time than the Olympics at the Temple of Hera. The girls competed with "their hair hanging loose" and with a "tunic reaching to a little above the knee, with the right shoulder bare as far as the breasts."

In Sparta women competed in front of the men nude in "gymnastics," which at that times meant "exercises performed naked." The Spartan women also wrestled but there is no evidence that they ever boxed. Most events required the women to be virgins and when they got married, usually the age of 18, their athletic career was over. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Otherwise women competitors were barred from the games and not even allowed to go near the stadium. The mother of a boxer once disguising herself as her son's trainer and was revealed for what she was when her robe slipped after embracing her victorious son. The judges spared her life with the understanding she would never show up again. The boxer's mother episode, some say, is another reason why male competitors competed in the nude.

In 396 B.C. Princess Kyniska became the first woman to sponsor a winning entry in the tethrippon, a four horse chariot race, at the Olympics.

Hera Games, Ancient Olympic of Women

Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: “Women did not participate at the main Olympic festival. They had their own Games, in honour of Hera, where the sole event was a run of five-sixths of the length of the stadium - which would have preserved in male opinion the inferior status of women. Whether women could even watch the festival is disputed. Unmarried virgins, not soiled by sex or motherhood and thus maintaining the religious purity of the occasion, probably could. Festivals (and, for example, funerals) were among the limited occasions when women, especially virgins, or parthenoi, had a public role. At the Games unmarried girls, besides helping with the running of the festival, may have taken the opportunity to find a fit future husband. [Source: Stephen Instone, BBC, February 17, 2011|::|]

“As Pindar wrote, about a victor in the Greek colony of Cyrene: “'When they saw you many times victorious in the Games of Athene, each of the maidens was speechless as they prayed you might be her husband or son.”

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” (c. A.D. 175): As you go from Scillus along the road to Olympia, before you cross the Alpheius, there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira only....She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip before entering the arena. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“Every fourth year there is woven for Hera a robe by the Sixteen Women [Source: Elis], and the same also hold games called Heraea. The games consist of foot-races for maidens. These are not all of the same age. The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens. They run in the following way: their hair hangs down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast. These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one-sixth of its length.

“To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive and a portion of the cow sacrificed to Hera. They may also dedicate statues with their names inscribed upon them. The games of the maidens too are traced back to ancient times; they say that, out of gratitude to Hera for her marriage with Pelops, Hippodameia assembled the Sixteen Women, and with them inaugurated the Heraea. The Sixteen Women also arrange two choral dances, one called that of Physcoa and the other that of Hippodameia.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

Last updated January 2012

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