The Four Year Ban

WADA’s adopted a new code that will apply from 2015 onwards. It includes a four year ban for serious doping offences. Will this change anything?

First a technical explainer. Not all positive tests mean four years. WADA has a list “specified substances” where under defined conditions the ban may be reduced. “The purpose is to recognize that it is possible for a substance to enter an athlete’s body inadvertently, and therefore allow a tribunal more flexibility when making a sanctioning decision” says WADA’s website. This list typically includes molecules contained in many over-the-counter medicines or even herbal remedies and consumer products. It’s only the kind of substances that you can’t buy that will result in automatic four year bans, think EPO, human growth hormones or a blood transfusion.

In fact there will be more flexibility in 2015 when it comes to substances that could have been taken accidentally. This will have to be watched carefully to ensure athletes do not consume banned substances and then claim accidental use, just as Lance Armstrong did when he was injecting cortisone whilst pretending to use a topical cream for a skin rash.

2 to 4 years
The move to a four year ban suggests a two year ban has not been enough, either as a deterrent or a punishment. One motivation behind the doubling of the sanction is the Olympic cycle. Many sports squirm at the thought of a participant showing up at the Olympics after a doping ban. You could say its for the sake of appearances.

4 years = life?
In practical terms a four year ban is a life ban. The current two year ban has probably marked a physiological, financial and mental limit. Imagine a rider busted in the 2014 Tour de France, they will be out for two years and can return in mid-2016. They have a certain stock of condition to carry into 2015 which becomes a “sabbatical year” to borrow from Richard Virenque’s denial. Then comes 2016 and the rider can build up in preparation for the Vuelta. It’s a long time out but only really means missing one full year, there is a big financial penalty to pay for up to two years without salary but a big fish can decide whether it’s affordable.

Ivan Basso
Ivan Basso came back after two years but will anyone sit it out for four years?

By contrast a rider caught in 2015 can only hope to return to the 2019 Vuelta. That’s four years of unemployment and and three whole seasons of glorified cycle touring in the effort to keep the body in shape because if you stop you lose condition and the comeback gets harder. Maybe one or two fanatics will try it but I think it effectively ends someone’s career.

It’s this ejection that could make the sport quite different. Today fans can be troubled by returning riders. For example watching Operation Puerto “survivors” in action is awkward, the likes of Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi can incite different emotions. With a four year ban these kind of riders won’t be back, the “they’ve served their ban and have the right to return” mantra won’t be heard as often.

Call the CAS
Because this can end careers one upshot might be more contests at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Now testing justice in court is a noble principle but practice has seen many unconsidered appeals that ultimately waste everyone’s time except the lawyers fronting them although even they can look foolish venturing wild arguments. We can probably expect a few more cases.

Is a longer ban better?
A longer ban is good if everything else stays the same. Only it doesn’t. It’s like the death penalty for murder, people may still commit the crime. It might deter some but it might also encourage others to prepare for the act properly. Instead of a rash act they’ll be extra careful to cover their tracks. As a result fewer cheats will trip up; over the years many have been caught because of silly mistakes, the cliché of anti-doping controls being an IQ test rings true.

Note we’ve seen bans go up over time, from a matter of weeks in the 1970s to months in the 1980s and one year in the 1990s. The two year ban came in the 2000s but doping remained widespread in the peloton.

The deterrent factor is a function of the probability of being caught. In order to ban someone you have to catch them first. A long ban in scenario where few cheats are caught is not the same as a short ban where every doper is detected and blocked. Put simply detection matters and this is the hard part, whether an acceptable testing regime (hello Jamaica) or adequate tests for EPO microdosing, AICAR and other substances where a validated test is slow to appear and is costly.

When the detection rate was close to 0%

A mix of deterrent and Olympic face-saving seems to have brought about this long ban. It’s easy to put in place at the stroke of a pen and a vote of approval. But if it looks tough to outsiders, the real battle for WADA is improving detection to catch the use of banned methods and substances.

A two year ban has not ended careers, several big names in cycling have made a successful return. But a four year suspension is going to alter the balance. Anyone caught in 2015 and beyond with EPO, steroids and other hormones may be gone forever. A four year ban might not double the deterrent factor but it will alter the composition of the pro peloton.

47 thoughts on “The Four Year Ban”

  1. “.. A four year ban might not double the deterrent factor but it will alter the composition of the pro peloton.”
    And that is a good thing!
    4 year bans were also possible under the old code (“aggravating circumstances”) and the IAAF (track and field federation) have used in successfully in several of their biological passport cases.
    Now, this approach is reversed (4 years, but can be less there are attenuating circumstances).
    Definitely a step forward!

  2. But isn’t the longer ban also linked to an increased effort in detection and using methods that don’t rely solely on testing to catch dopers?

    • Ah, but what if the satisfaction is itself superficial? 😉

      We remove the riders but we don’t tackle the underlying problem. However note the 2015 Code also has new things on riders coming forward to expose a system as well as formal sanctions for entourage like coaches.

      • And what if superficial satisfaction is better than none at all? The success of certain phone lines and Internet services might suggest that it is 🙂

        I think inrng is right that longer sentences will increase the risk of the sentence being challenged, though any kind of sentence seems to result in years of kicking and screaming from those who get caught out. As has been noted, the key is more effective detection (and prosecution), but that’s the hard part. I seem to recall reading about proposals for countries to test each other’s athletes, which might help with resourcing, though would no doubt raise many other concerns.

        Perhaps one meaningful form of punishment would be to force convicted dopers to listen to Carlton’s commentary when they’re racing. (Actually, I’m a fan of Kirby’s orgasmic enthusiasm, especially when combined with Kelly’s anaphrodisiac tones, but the Tour isn’t the same with Dai Harmon whispering in my ear and Carlton chained in his Parisien dungeon). Yes, I did have to look up anaphrodisiac, though I’m sure I’ve heard it during my many break-ups.

  3. Every time I’ve had a poke around in the criminology literature, it’s been pretty clear that while penalties have some effect on crime rates, the chances of getting caught have a far greater effect.

    Of course, it’s much easier to increase penalties (and not particularly costly to do so, given that we’re talking suspensions from sport rather than jail terms) than catch more cheats, but nevertheless if you’re serious about reducing cheating that’s what you need to do.

    And, to be fair, it does seem that the biopassport is having some effect on that, though whether that effect has been an alteration of methods of doping rather than a reduction is not at all clear at this stage.

  4. Remember the 2 year ban followed by a voluntary ‘non hiring’ agreement by teams? It too would have meant the end of many careers, including Ivan Basso’s but it was quickly forgotten when teams could sense a bargain buy coming on.

    You’re right about testing being the crux of this. It will be interesting to see if the blood passport system will come under greater pressure by riders called upon to explain their blood values. To date I am personally surprised that some riders haven’t questioned it’s basis in law.

    • If this really is David Harmon can I just say PLEASE come back to cycling, last season was simply no the same without you! It really wasn’t. Krazy Karlton Kurby did a reasonable job given his obvious handicaps but you are the voice of cycling. Sean missed you too I think.

    • Some riders have challenged the passport, right now Leif Hoste is testing it. But it’s been used on small fry like Caucchioli and Valjavec before it was applied to Pellizotti, it is now gaining more acceptance.

      PS I look forward to hearing the race commentary in 2014.

  5. This is all you can do – increase the ban to a large extent and simply pray that it’s an effective deterrent. There is no other option. It’s cleat from listening to anecdotal evidence that the testing is way behind the doping. There is neither the time, technology, manpower or money to effectively test all riders that need to be effectively tested.

    I’ve thought for years that 4 years is the only logical step. It does more than double the deterrant – the previous 2 year (or 18 month) ban was clearly no deterrant at all. This moves from no deterrant to a significant one, so way more than double.

  6. Yes to 4 year bans, but not just for athletes! 4 year bans for coaches, managers and the dodgy chemists/doctors too!! Then you’d remove the real problem, not just one of the victims….

    • Stephen, the new 2015 Code provides for this.

      Under Article 2:
      Involvement in an anti-doping rule violation committed by another person – such as helping to cover up that violation – will be sanctioned with a ban of up to four years. Helping someone commit a doping violation, or avoid detection, will be sanctioned in the same way as that violation. (Article 2.9)

        • But…you cant safeguard against every possible outcome of a new level of sanctioning. Fundamentally many of us having been shouting for entourages to get sanctioned too, in the event of enough evidence.

          • Thanks for the link Sam, but my theory is that riders should all be brought back into a team structure. Post Festina, we’ve seen a shift where the team now seems to be a collection of contracted riders who go off and prepare on their own. My view is that the management of the team should be equally liable for any infringements – so rather than WADA having to prove they’re complicit, the burden of proof is put onto them to demonstrate the innocence of a rogue athlete who went to great lengths to deceive their employer.

            There are too many top tier ‘teams’ making a complete mockery of the sport.

  7. They’re trying to tackling anti-doping with a multi-faceted approach:

    1. Increase the risk of detection:
    – keep on improving testing to detect more and more substances (working with pharmas ahead of new drugs coming to market to develop tests before rather than post-release is part of that)
    – biological passports – keep on expanding to include more eg.g. the new steroid profiling
    – depend less on tests and more on investigative ways of catching cheats, including more co-operation across borders, ADOs

    2. Increase the penalities
    – 2 -> 4 year bans
    – same bans for entourage

    No one says that tests are catching a big percentage of the cheats. WADA report postive tests from 1% of all tests carried out. The bio passport is only highlighting the big outliers that jump out. Primarily its suggesting to AD officials which athletes need to be target tested. But people like Ross Tucker liken it to the effect that road speed sensors have on traffic speeds: it makes people slow down. Some will still drive over the speed limit – or dope – but instead of going super-fast (or doping to the gills) they’re much more cautious. And with doping, that can lead to a lessening effect on performance gains through doping.

    • I have said this many times on air. It has been both inaccurate and highly misleading for testing bodies to claim that substances are undetectable. Every single drug brought to market has been thoroughly tested by the Pharma companies. It has been the understandable reluctance of these companies to open up access to the testing regime that has been the issue. If the testing authorities can convince manufacturers worldwide that their support and co-operation is a good thing for them as a business and ratify that in a code of practice many of the avenues currently open to athletes who wish to use substances will be cut off.

      • The excellent ‘Bad Pharma’ by Ben Goldacre suggests that there is almost no chance of pharmaceutical businesses giving anyone access to their data.
        Even if they would, or were forced to, the data available for new-on-the-scene drugs like AICAR isn’t enough – thresholds can’t be set without a statistically significant sample to base it on.
        Pharma companies just haven’t tested these things enough to know all of the side effects, let alone a concrete detection method.
        If we assumed that every performance enhancer currently available was static, then the testing could catch up. But who knows what under-tested concoction will be available from vets, geneticists and crooked doctors in a couple of years.

      • All due respect to you Mr. Harmon, substances ARE in fact undetectable.

        #1 Pharma testing is not anti-doping testing. Pharma is testing for a change of some beneficial kind, anti-doping is testing for artifacts/markers in blood or urine. That’s completely different.

        #2 Either the sport federation, or the event promoter determines which test to run given the budget they are required to spend on testing. Guess what? The tests they can afford are easily defeated.
        Look no further than a testosterone ratio test. Just don’t cross the ratio threshold and you will not trip the far more expensive and very accurate test for artificial testosterone.

        Basically, Olympic sports federations know all of this and their athletes know all of this because WADA’s documentation is public.

        Meanwhile, the Olympic sports federations are still hiding positives. See Armstrong’s latest news where he outs Verbruggen as the one hiding his positives.

        • pharma has all sort of pharmacokinetic data on their drugs, they know how fast it’s cleared, the mechanism of clearance, t 1/2, volume of distribution, etc. etc. how do you think they determine these values? pharma also looks for a pharmacodynamic effect.

          • Again Anonymous,

            There’s no question Pharma would have some statistics that would be useful for NADOs/WADA. But, pharma is not answering the specific questions that an anti-doping organization is asking about a drug. The perfect example being AICAR. Until recently, there was no test for AICAR yet the manufacturer has all and more of the metrics you mention readily available.

            While Pharma could probably accelerate anti-doping testing protocols, (ex. AICAR) they are not the silver bullet Mr. Harmon believes them to be.

            To triple the difficulty, doping is moving to relatively simple to manufacture and safer peptides.

  8. 4 years is better than 2 but I still believe a lifetime ban’s the answer, with reductions based on the level of cooperation ratting out the enablers. But all of that only works if the testing works of course. Pathetic with all the corporate money around the IOC that WADA can get only a 1% increase in funding to combat cheating? Seems like in many ways it’s back to the old management of doping SCANDALS rather than real anti-doping efforts.
    Now that BigTex is starting to rat on Mr. Mars we’re in for another round of scandal management and finger pointing. Can Cookson do anything to change this to one big blow-up instead of the constant tick, tick, tick that hangs over the sport?

  9. Without looking at what WADA has said or changed, could I ask a question. Once ‘caught’ will riders still be allowed to ride whilst they have a CAS appeal lodged?

    Correct me if wrong, but my perception is that they can keep riding and then if unsuccessful the ban frequently starts from the original date, thus shortening the time out of competition and weakening the ban term. Bans should be total term, so there can’t be a way to keep riding, or any deferral in final judgment just moves the calendar forward.

    • You can’t race if you’ve been convicted and are appealing. We’ve had the Contador case where he was suspended and then cleared by the Spanish… and then the UCI decided to go to the CAS to apply a sanction, during which time Contador won the Giro. But normally the ban clock starts ticking the day of the sample.

  10. Maybe we should think about the matter following a slightly different line…
    Not tackling individual cases, but the system as a whole. Since I would dare to say that we can now agree that, at least in cycling, doping was “a system”, throughout the nineties and the 2000s (we’ll be able to say something about present time in a fifteen or twenty years time, let’s see).

    In general terms, we can think to professional cycling as a world where different parties interact with each other depending on conflicting or coinciding interests from time to time. The teams are struggling along with their riders against other teams and riders to win races, but it’s pretty clear that teams can have conflictive relations with their own riders, or that a sponsor may be supporting a team but at the same time be holding a conflictive relation with it, or with the individual riders. And so on, between UCI and teams, and race organizers… Cycling explored in the last twenty years or so virtually every combination of conflict between parties, often using antidoping and “informing authorities” as a mass-destruction weapon.

    If we follow this line of thought, we could observe that, practically, individual cyclists may not be the party which have top interest in the existence of a widespread doping system.

    Not for every cyclist (that’s for sure), but for the vast majority of them, there wouldn’t be any significant difference in results and revenues between a doping-plagued world of cycling and a totally doping-free sport. It’s maths, not speculation: given that the top spots in cyclings are just a few, the majority of pro riders simply couldn’t get something very different from what they got now, because there isn’t space. It would concern 20-30 riders, at most. Moreover, even BED and HGH give you an advantage that’s really relevant between pro athletes, but there aren’t so many people who would just fall out of top sport to let “clean riders” in. It would be a very reduced percentage, if any.
    Whereas with doping they’ve got health risk, career risk, blackmail risk…

    All the other parties may have an interest in that doping should not be discovered and/or punished, but don’t have any direct interest in the fact that doping should not be used.

    At least, cyclists pay a toll in many respects, while for the other parties a “working” doping system is just a fabulous opportunity to reduce many sporting variables to a matter of money and political power. And, let’s see, who will take decisions, who will lead the game? The social agents with more money and/or political power! Great!
    If doping is widespread, one of the most important things that cyclists have to trade in a conflictual marketplace will lose weight: talent and natural physical qualities will count less.

    So we have a social background in which doping and antidoping become a “currency” to exchange political power (the UCI) with money (teams and sponsors), to unbalance existing power distributions (UCI vs. ASO), or to put more pressure on the cyclists on behalf of the teams and/or of the sponsors.
    That’s how we got here, not thanks to the greedy and roguish cyclists. I simply don’t believe that every individual cyclist was “personally” like that, and therefore it’s “their fault” if we got an ENDEMIC doping system… through the sum of individuals?!
    Doping (not exposed, or exposed at will) was great for everyone, until the day in which the toy got broken because everyone was pulling to his side, the UCI putting pressure on the teams, national federations brawling, Vaughters (and some teams) putting pressure on the UCI and so on.

    Now everyone wants credibility, not necessarily a clean sport.
    It’s too good to have the possibility to hope that if you got the right amount of power and money, as a sponsor, or as a national federation, you may buy or negotiate a special boost for your soldiers, pardon, athletes.

    That’s why I don’t believe we can get anyway out of endemic doping if we go on weakening the relative position of cyclists, and that’s just what this norm is doing.
    Including the teams may not be enough to change the scheme, you’re only shifting it to an upper level: anyway, that would be a great step forward, but it will always be a problem to legally demonstrate exact reponsabilities of team, staff and so. Cyclists will still be the weaker ring.

    I’ve got no solution, but I think that slipping along this path we’re making of the individual cyclists a sort of throw-away disposable pawns, and I feel that this will increase even more the probability of a fully implemented top-down driven doping system. And that’s the worst system you’ll possibly have in terms of sporting values, compared to casual and isolated dopers, which is the risk you may be taking with shorter bans.
    Let’s look at the progression of bans, hey, that worked… or not?!


    PS @inrng: I really appreciate this blog, but I think that you should have been more cautious with a photo decision. I think it’s an error to choose as a representative photo of a period when “detection rate was close to 0%” the one you choose. Any podium could have been portrayed there, but this way you’re empowering the general stereotype of Soviet-East Germany dopers. They certainy doped, but now we know enough (thanks to individuals as Exum or to state investigations in Germany, Italy, Australia and so) that neither West Germany, neither USA, neither… Italy were doing anything different. Australia apparently was at it till now. Institutions-driven general doping. It was just the same. The difference, if any, is that western countries had (a little) more options to “just erase” some adverse analytical finding, and that’s how they managed to appear cleaner. Therefore… it’s funny, ok, but it’s really, really unfair to continue “re-producing” that kind of self-indulgent Rocky IV propaganda. Especially if you consider that two of the three riders portrayed had to serve bans for positive tests. That means that they weren’t for sure among the top beneficiaries of a 0% politics. I get your point, but you really should have chosen something more correct, with less implications. Whatismore, in this same entry you refer to the Armstrong cortisone situation, and given the news we got today about that (Armstrong confessed that he had direct and confirmed protection from Verbrugge to solve that problem) the reference to those who got caught – and paid, at least – becomes pretty ludicrous.
    PS2 Sorry for my English 🙂

    • The piece mentions the importance of the “Olympic cycle” so it makes sense to use an Olympic podium for the photo. Sydney 2000 had known dopers wearing gold and silver, a perfect illustration of what the new rules (and the IOC) seek to avoid. Further, Inrng argued that a 4 year suspension might amount to a life ban. If that is right Vinokourov would not have some back from his 2007 suspension…and won Olympic gold in 2012. Once again an astute choice by our esteemed blogger.

      • I can not agree. In the tagline Inrng refers to “detection rate”, and as he overtly states in the blog entry, that’s a wholly different problem from ban duration.
        In fact, since we’re NOT speaking of a real “life ban”, Vinokourov could have won both his Olympic medals without any problem.

        Technically speaking, I would add that time trials are much more “doping-sensitive” than one day races as the Olympic road race is. Therefore, if Inrng wanted to show some kind of Olympic dopers, it would have been far more interesting to portrait the podium of the Sidney time trial, with Ullrich and Armstrong (both beated by Ekimov), or the podium of Athens, with the confessed dopers Hamilton and Julich (again, with Ekimov). Athens would have offered the esthetic and semantic benefit of laurel!
        Moreover, it would have been more interesting because in both cases some medals have been cancelled, thus proving that they were doping related, something that didn’t happen with the specific road race which Inrng chose.
        And it’s kind of silly to decide to extend as we please our personal “doping-detector” to focus on some riders as “especially doped”.
        We could as well say that probably riders who come back after serving their bans must ride “cleaner” (“cleaner” than before, but even “cleaner” than the rest…), and so those who can attain particularly good results under that are maybe showing that their previous wins dind’t rely so much on doping as on personal qualities.
        Interesting conjectures, nothing else.
        Just as hinting at that podium as an example of a doping era with low detection rates. What a difference with nowadays cycling…
        (in my opinion: low rates = period of political peace between sport parties; high rates = period of conflict; sacrificing past idols = signing new peace treaties)

        • Gabriele, the fact is that INRNG could have chosen a pic blind-folded from that time and he’d have come up with a dodgy podium.

          He/she can’t satisfy every single reader’s sensitivities.

          • Ok, ok… I only find it pretty annoying that, since what we all can now know, the media tend to fall in the same stereotypes as always: if you want an example of a doper, nothing better than “Ivan Drago” Vinokourov (who was caught just one time, and under suspicious conditions… but this doesn’t matter so much, really) and a couple of East Germany folks.
            At least we have now the responsibility to avoid those fixed ideas which along the last 30 years or so helped so much concealing the truth of general and endemic doping in the sport.
            Sometimes “any podium” is better than “a particular” podium, if we want to jump out from the blind patterns in which we have been trapped for too many years.
            I cut it out, it isn’t so important anyway: even if I think that’s a problem of a shift in collective sensitivity, rather than of hurting “single’s reader sensitivities”.

        • I find the Sydney road race more interesting precisely because the medals were not cancelled, even though it is now known that the winners were dopers. It backs up the 0% detection point better.

          • The medals cancelled afterwards at least show that there was something to detect. Especially the one which belonged to Hamilton.
            I think that the big problem about a “0% detection policy” is that you don’t really know at which level you got a “real zero”.

            Maybe the T-Mobile triplets weren’t doping for that specific race (may sound strange, but it’s perfectly possible) and so simply couldn’t give a positive (at most, a false positive…). Or maybe they were doping so well that they couldn’t be caught, something that’s easier in the case of a one-day race in comparison with a three-week long stage race (and this is just probable). Or maybe the positive findings could be covered up thanks to medical prescription manipulations, or destruction of the B-sample, or simply shutting up the lab, or overlooking police findings of forbidden substances.

            In fact, this last kind of situation is the only one (except “no doping”) which will lead to a real “0% detection”, because even before than an EPO test was available, people could get more or less “caught” through an HCT thresold failed test, or by police.

            The real interest in a “0% situation” is in that you can infer (or read about in the newspapers) some kind of implication of sport authorities and institutions, and if that is true the duration of bans becomes a completely different affair.

            The Sydney road race podium doesn’t show as much about this…

    • Thank you, Gabriele! The only one who is paying the bill in every way is the rider. The teams, sponsors etc. will always find their way back in -one way or another. Nothing will change that. By the way, we all are enablers, too (imagine we would get banned from blogs and tvs for watching doped riders, getting a shirt or claiming somewhere ” I know rider xy is doped” without calling the Hotline in consequence!). I have no solution at hand and I don’t believe there is one. I am just not comfortable with judging about something I have not experienced. And the context of this whole thing for me is clearly not doping. If I would be passionate about paper clips, I would have this discussion about employees who steal paper clips. Everyone has to come to terms with themselves how to deal with the questions of wrong and right and hurt feelings and beliefs.

  11. All rather disappointing. The new WADA position gives even more room for litigation and little in the way of deterrent. The system requires transparency for all, riders and fans alike coupled with better and more focused testing. Four year suspensions are a welcome addition, but other than that little to cheer about.

  12. A question regarding the other WADA change as I understand it – the ‘statute of limitations’ regarding past instances of doping has also been increased, from 8 years to 10 years yes?

    I assume that this means that samples will be stored and made available for retrospective testing for 10 years as well?

    This to me seems to be the best approach/deterrent to the widespread use of substances which are currently undetectable.

  13. Perhaps the threat of a 4 year ban will compel riders to provide info on the sources of drugs – coaches, doctors, dealers, etc.

    A governing body that it’s serious about a clean sport would go after these actors more than the end users themselves.

  14. Lets let the market correct the drug problem.
    To race at the highest level teams sponsors and riders agree:
    To have the UCI hold 5% of all riders salaries in a bond for the duration of their professional careers. If at anytime they are found guilty of having used PED during they’re racing career all that 5% up to that point is forfeited and used to enhance the detection methods and mandatory testing for PEDs
    4 years after quitting the pro ranks, and having no convictions during that time period they receive the 5%. Obviously some legal hurdles here!

  15. “Lets let the market correct the drug problem.”

    Lets let capitalism correct the capitalism problem.

    The solution is to follow, favourite and retweet ‘JV’ on twitter.

    Why aren’t cyclists who are alleged to have broken sporting rules treated like currently suspended managing directors of sport and media companies by fans, media, etc?

    • Anonymous,

      What does ” let capitalism correct the capitalism problem mean”

      I think they call it Pro Cycling for a reason!

      I guess I think of the old expression “Hit them in the pocket book, early and frequently” reinforcing lost of already earned income that may be the best deterrent.

      Your last point has merit, perhaps only as a last resort or the nuclear option.

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