Survival of the Fittest
Nick Delgado has a tube of the testicle cream in his pocket. He is the author of eight books, including How to Look Great & Feel Sexy, and he's scouting the room packed with muscular hardbodies at the Olympia competition and product exposition.
When Delgado spots magazine publisher Jeff Everson, he rushes over and starts his pitch.
"I want you to tell you about this product called 'Strength and Romance,'" Delgado says quickly. "It stops testosterone from turning to estrogen. [Bodybuilder] Brian Sutton gained six pounds of muscle in one week! You rub it on your neck. You rub it on your scrotum. Within about twenty minutes, it kicks in. Within about two weeks, you're getting the best gains of your life."
Delgado pushes a vanilla-colored tube toward Everson.
"Take this," he says. "It gives you better vascularity, better muscle density, all within about two weeks. Guaranteed."
Everson, an enormous fifty-year-old former bodybuilder, takes the tube. He hears these sorts of pitches all the time, but Delgado is on his magazine's "advisory committee," so his recommendations require consideration.
"All right," Everson says quietly.
"Thanks," Delgado says. "I appreciate, you know, that people like your articles."
After Delgado leaves, Everson shakes his head at the tube.
"You can't promote a cream that changes your basic hormone levels significantly through the skin; otherwise it would have to be a prescription item," he explains. "That's the whole thing with our industry, these sort of claims. And 99.9 percent of these people believe what is coming out of their mouths. Most of these people are not sophisticated enough to be hustlers. They honestly believe that everything they read in magazines about their products is real."
When Everson says "our industry," he is actually referring to two industries.
The first is muscle magazines, those glossy periodicals stuffed with photos of grimacing super-sized humans and beastly biceps. Everson owns one, a free, bimonthly Littleton-based journal called Planet Muscle that's distributed across the country and in several major gym chains.
The second industry is sports supplements -- dietary and performance-enhancement products such as creatine, protein powder and fat-burning pills. Everson owns one of these companies as well: Everfit, a modest line of massage oils and herbal products.
Now, if owning both a supplement company and a bodybuilding magazine sounds like a conflict of interest...it is.
But these two industry branches are so grossly intertwined, so blatantly cross-promotional, so dependent on each other for survival, that Everson may be correct to think of them singularly. And Everson is more openly critical of this industry than just about anyone.
"Fifty percent of our supplement-industry revenues are earned selling horseshit -- nothing less than outright hogwash," Everson wrote in one Planet Muscle editorial. "The whole industry is saturated with too much snake oil slithering down the toilet bowl... [but] if the magazines only printed workout information, they'd go out of business."
Nowhere is this conjoined relationship between muscle mags and supplements more apparent than here, at the annual Olympia Expo at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The scene is like the contents of a muscle magazine come to life. There are pro bodybuilders, fitness trainers, supplement pushers, muscle-mag editors, bodybuilder fans and, of course, products.
Samples of products, their names in bold block letters, are handed out everywhere by smiling models. Products that promise virility and energy and strength and -- most of all -- big muscles. Major bulk. Shredded shoulders and pumped pecs.
Narcissism is big business. And the business is not pretty.
You know, I spend millions of dollars on stuff that doesn't work," says forty-year-old Damon Rosenaur, a car dealer and self-described "wannabe bodybuilder" from Dallas.
Rosenaur is holding a plastic bottle of "Extreme Ripped Force Hyper-Thermogenic Drink" while staring skeptically at a supplement company's sign promising to "Grow Muscle While You Sleep."
The man behind the Expo booth assures Rosenaur that this product, unlike similar products he may have tried, most assuredly does work.
Rosenaur turns away. He doesn't buy it. But he does buy practically everything else. His typical purchases include protein powder, amino acids, meal-replacement bars and fat-burners.
"I spend between $700 and $1,000 per month," he says. "I eat more supplements than I do food, probably."
Rosenaur's girlfriend leans forward. "He's not kidding," she says.
The tricky thing about supplements, as the muscular Rousenaur has discovered, is that they are every bit as much of a gamble as the slot machines above the Expo. Some pay out, many do not. And thousands of bodybuilders and athletes are letting their health ride on powder, pills and drinks whose ingredient lists sound like a chemist murmuring in his sleep.
According to a study by Blue Cross/Blue Shield's Healthy Competition Foundation, 9 percent of adults take performance-enhancement supplements. One million adolescents between the ages of twelve and seventeen have also tried them.
"There's a misperception that if you buy something at a health-food store, you don't face serious health risks. Some of these things, the only reason they are not classified as drugs is because of the Dietary Supplement and Heath Education Act," says Iris Shaffer, executive director of the Healthy Competition Foundation.
The 1994 DSHEA bill was chiefly sponsored by Utah senator Orrin Hatch, whose state is the nation's leading producer of dietary supplements. The act reclassified dietary supplements as "food" rather than FDA-regulated drugs, which meant safety testing was no longer required for their release. Since then, the supplement industry has rocketed into a powerful lobbying force whose annual profit is estimated at $1.5 billion per year. Creatine sales alone jumped from $30 million in 1995 to $230 million in 1999. Products are pushed into the marketplace with the barest of scientific research and advertisements claiming fantastic results -- with the following disclaimer: "These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA."
One controversial offender is androstenedione (aka "andro," made unintentionally famous by Mark McGwire during his record-setting year in 1998). Andro is a legal steroid that is so similar to its illegal cousins that it is widely believed to have the same negative long-term effects. Another red-flag product is the fat-burning/energy-enhancement chemical ephedra, which has been linked to more than eighty deaths by the FDA and is the target of several class-action lawsuits.
More troubling is a recent study showing that teens who use sports supplements are more likely to use illegal steroids. They "tend to think of steroids as less harmful, more helpful, and have a greater intent to use them," says Dr. Linn Goldberg of the Oregon Health and Science University.
And in "the industry" -- both the supplement and muscle-mag branches -- all of these products, both safe and dangerous, heavily researched and newly developed, are marketed together using hyped-up claims and mouthfuls of pseudo-science by bodybuilding professionals who appear to have been inflated by a cartoon Acme air hose.
That's one reason Everson says he started a magazine.
"I was getting fed up about misinformation about nutrition and training," he says. "It's not accurate information for the young kids that are the greatest market for these magazines: the fourteen-, fifteen-year-old boy who wants to build muscles."
In Planet Muscle, Everson denounces sports drinks ("drinking regular water is better than a soft or sports drink"), elaborate home gyms ("regardless of space or budget limitations, you can work out your entire body with a set of dumbbells and a good bench") and, most of all, supplement advertising ("the more exclamatory an ad is, chances are the more useless the product is").
The two-year-old magazine's motto is "Muscling in on Bodybuilding Truth." It is a download of Everson's opinions about bodybuilding and his taste for cheesecake photos of the rear ends of thong-wearing fitness models ("I'm a glute man," he admits). Distributed at Gold's Gym, Power House Gym and GNC stores nationwide, the magazine claims a circulation of 150,000. Though the publication is based in the Denver area, Everson lives in California, where he hosts a fitness show (also called Planet Muscle) for the E! cable network. The show is one of those early-morning affairs on which models lift weights in front of a breezy scenic vista -- actually Everson's house. He commutes to Denver every couple of months to help assemble the magazine, which is based in Littleton, because his business partner, Wally Smith, lives in Highlands Ranch. His handful of local staffers say Everson is ferociously protective of the magazine's contents, to the point of sacrificing advertising to maintain a degree of credibility.
"We don't sell ads to companies or products that Jeff doesn't believe in," says Planet Muscle's marketing director, Christa Patterson.
Concurs Paul L. Burton, founder of Gen-Mag, an online magazine and supplement company: "He is the only person actually turning down ad revenue. Jeff is putting his money where his mouth is, and nobody else is doing that."
Everson, though, is not entirely averse to the art of pushing product. He used to be a supplement huckster himself. Some claim he still is.
Everson was a strength coach at the University of Wisconsin when he began dating Cory Kneuer, a beautiful track star. He thought she would make a fantastic bodybuilder and told her so. Cory, initially reluctant to lift weights, took some persuading, Everson says. But eventually she was convinced. Pumping iron together, they won couples-bodybuilding tournaments and were married in 1982.
In 1984, the Los Angeles-based Muscle & Fitness magazine noticed Everson's freelance articles and hired him as an associate editor.
The Eversons moved to California, where both of their careers zoomed -- although one of them shot much higher than the other. Everson became a writer for M&F, the world's most popular bodybuilding magazine. Known as the "bodybuilder's bible," M&F was created by Joe Weider and has existed under various names since the 1940s. In the 1980s, Ben and Joe Weider used M&F as a platform to promote protein powders and vitamin supplements. Their synergistic marketing formula was so successful it became a model for other muscle magazines to follow: Align with a supplement- or equipment-manufacturing company, then subtly push product through articles; blatantly push more product through advertorials; and holler about products in traditional advertisements.
Muscle magazines are typically published by bodybuilders for bodybuilders, and the traditional journalistic separation of editorial and advertising has never been a high priority. In a recent M&F issue, more than two-thirds of the advertisements were for supplement companies, including several "special six-page ad reports" that used a format similar to regular articles. It is not uncommon for an employee of a supplement company to contribute an article to a muscle magazine. While Joe Weider no longer permits contributors to plug specific brand names, the editorial content still promotes the broad goals of their advertisers: maintaining an illusion of necessity for the latest chemical compounds. Read the fine print in the front of the magazine, though, and you'll see this warning: "Reader discretion is advised." (The editor of Muscle & Fitness and a spokesperson for Weider Publications declined to comment for this story.)
"We use muscle mags to show kids what a joke it is," says OHSU's Dr. Goldberg. "We ask them, 'Why do you think they have ads for acne creams, breast-reduction surgery and hair transplants when their target audience is young people?' Those are all side effects of steroids."
During Everson's tenure at M&F, his articles mixed a frank, sarcastic style with a clear presentation of technical information. He worked his way up to editor-in-chief.
While Jeff was busy writing, Cory won six consecutive Ms. Olympia competitions -- from 1984 to 1989 -- and was featured with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Impact. She became a popular pinup girl, getting endorsement and books deals while her husband remained her supportive coach. Articles frequently referred to Jeff as "Everson's coach" or, simply, "Everson's husband."
In 1991, Everson interviewed Dr. Scott Connelly for M&F.
Connelly was a former anesthesiologist who had researched the use of proteins to help patients recover from a loss of muscle mass. He had developed a new product called the Original Drink Mix, a protein-and-carbohydrate powder that was designed to grow muscle when used in conjunction with a weight-training regimen.
At the time, many bodybuilding supplements were either macronutrients, such as egg protein, or basic dietary pills like amino acids or vitamins. So this was a revolutionary idea: a medical doctor -- the pro-bodybuilder's ideological nemesis -- creating a product specifically designed to help bodybuilders meet their goals while supplying a full range of nutritional needs.
Connelly didn't even call his product a supplement. He called it "engineered nutrition" -- a full-fledged meal replacement.
Everson stepped down from his role as M&F's editor-in-chief. He joined Connelly and another well-known bodybuilder, Bill Phillips, in forming a distribution company for the new product. Everson's job was to use his straight-shooting reputation among M&F readers to promote Connelly's company to the bodybuilding community. He would pump iron to return to peak condition, win contests and write articles for muscle magazines. M&F's former editor would be their "before-and-after" guy.
Connelly's company was called MET-Rx. Everson publicly predicted it would change bodybuilding forever.
Unfortunately, he was right.
MET-Rx was phenomenally successful. The products were demonstrated to be effective not only in clinical tests, but in everyday weight trainers as well. MET-Rx "went from $0 to $55 million in three years," says Everson.
Then, in 1994 -- the same year Congress effectively unleashed the supplement industry -- Phillips and Connelly had a "major battle of the egos," as Everson puts it. Different versions of the fight have been reported, but all agree that part of the disagreement was about marketing. MET-Rx was later cited by the Federal Trade Commission for using misleading ads during Phillips's marketing tenure.
The trio split, and the three industry stars hurtled off to form their own distinctive new galaxies in the bodybuilding universe: Phillips bought the California-based supplement company Experimental and Applied Sciences (EAS) and relocated the company to Golden; Everson started Planet Muscle; Connelly retained ownership of MET-Rx until he sold the company to Rexall last year.
Connelly is sitting at his Olympia Expo booth signing copies of his new fitness book, Body Rx. He regards some members of the crowd with disdain, watching the supersized humans walk by in skin-tight bodysuits.
"This is like an intergalactic-planetary experience," Connelly says, "and it gets worse every year. This is going to flame out if this movement toward the extreme doesn't stop. The drug use just keeps getting worse."
Connelly says he wants to develop nutritious products for the general population rather than niche supplements for bodybuilders. He was "vehemently against" the DSHEA bill and has since watched companies use flimsy medical-research studies to sell their products. And now, with all the weariness of a doctor responsible for a million Frankensteins, Connelly says the industry he helped create has gone too far.
"What's happened is this mess," Connelly says, nodding toward the Expo. "Some of the concepts I've introduced have been overblown, overstated, at times deliberately falsified in order to keep the chain of product going. When you walk out there, you get this indistinguishable mass of stuff. This industry doesn't care [about proven effectiveness]; they care about something that sounds really space-aged. There's products out there you'll see that contain methoxy-isoflavones because they found a Romanian journal that says when the stuff was fed to chickens, they got bigger. Instead of offering people methoxy-isoflavones, they should be offering food products that meet their general goal to be fit."
The muscle magazines, he says, only make the problem worse.
"It's a blatant, gross, saturation-bombing of bullshit," Connelly declares. "They're magalogues -- part magazine, part catalogue. Here's the formula: You write something that hints about some new discovery, and it's very rare and hard to get ahold of. And then two pages later, there's a thing about how we were lucky enough to get ahold of a bunch of this stuff, and you can get some of it before it goes away."
When asked if the super-sized people at the Expo are healthy, Connelly responds: "I would say most that are taking the drugs are manifestly unhealthy. And if they go off the stuff for even a short period of time, they have such a catabolic wasting event that they disappear before your eyes. So the consequence is that almost no one out there who is super-sized ever goes off the drugs."
Connelly can cite some grim facts regarding the use of illegal steroids and hormones. But if you really want a clear image of what massive amounts of chemicals can do to the human body, you need to watch a bodybuilding competition.
The Olympia contest was founded in 1965 by the Weider brothers. It has been held all over the world: Germany, South Africa, Australia, England, Italy, New York.
Since 1999, the Olympia has been held in Las Vegas, an ideal location. Vegas is all about big facades, brilliant larger-than-life aesthetics that can never entirely hide an undercurrent of desperation and loss. Visiting bodybuilders walking down the Vegas Strip past shimmering casinos look as if they belong here, gambling with their bodies the way others do with mere money.
At the Ms. Olympia, Everson will present the first-place prize. But while he's not on official duty, he sits near the back of the Mandalay Bay events-center arena, far from the shmoozing of the VIP section. He is accompanied by a cheerfully outgoing aerobics instructor named Karen Jo Koumas -- his fiancée.
Everson's marriage to Cory did not survive the pressures of their power-couple relationship. They endured a high-profile divorce in 1993, a year before the breakup of the MET-Rx distributorship.
"Cory was a very reluctant superhero, and all along, she would have much rather had me be the star," Everson says. "But she had that talent; I did not. I believe there were pressures borne upon Cory she hid from me and did not bear up well under."
Koumas says she met Everson in a gym in Hawaii. In his magazine, Everson comes off as a cocky and dominating figure, but in person he is surprisingly mellow and introverted. Everson and Koumas were friends for a year before Everson even kissed her. When he finally did, Koumas says he hyperventilated.
"People think he's stuck up, but he's actually just very shy," Koumas says. "He doesn't really like big crowds. He likes to read a lot. He calls business deals 'plastic relationships.'"
The lights dim, and the Ms. Olympia competitors swagger into the spotlight. The contestants are enormous. Their muscles' muscles have muscles. And since they need to flex constantly during the show, there's a strained tension running though their bodies; their smiles are all gritted teeth. It quickly becomes clear that one of the evening's winners will be Destiny's Child: The band's hit song "Survivor" is the obvious favorite, used repeatedly by the contestants in their flexing routines. It is tougher to choose a winner among the oily women competing to be Ms. Olympia, especially once you know what they've done to get on the stage.
In the weeks prior to the competition, a bodybuilder -- male or female -- will do nothing but eat, sleep and pump iron. They'll overfeed, then drain their muscle tissue of all water and salts, using diuretics to acquire a shredded look. They'll do this over and over. The contents and timing of every meal, drink and chemical prior to competition is meticulously planned to ensure maximum bulk and definition on the night of the Olympia. Backstage, competitors pump their muscles and apply oil. They have to time exactly how long they're going to be on stage so they don't "go flat" while standing in the spotlight.
Their chemical cocktails can include anabolic steroids, insulin, human growth hormones (HGH) and beta blockers. All of these drugs are officially banned by the International Federation of Bodybuilding, the contest's regulatory committee.
The side effects can be horrific. The effects of HGH include heart disease and gigantism -- typified by enlarged hands, feet, jaws and internal organs, while the use of steroids can cause cancer, sterility, blood clotting, hypertension, cholesterol changes, acne and "'roid rage," or increased aggression. Men's testicles shrink. In women, the clitoris grows. Muscle Elegance, a magazine devoted to nude pictorials of female bodybuilders, contains photos showing their enlarged genitalia. Quips Everson, "At least it's easy to find."
In Planet Muscle, Everson rallies against what he calls "steroid training protocols" -- workouts published in muscle magazines that are based on the routines of pro-bodybuilders.
"[The magazines are] so unrealistic for the average working man who wants to improve his body," he says. "He picks up these magazines and reads about somebody whose workout is that of Mr. Olympia. It has no relevancy at all and, in fact, it's detrimental."
At the climax of the Ms. Olympia contest, the bodybuilders stand in a row as the names of the winners are announced. As each name is read, different factions of the crowd boo loudly, a routine occurrence in bodybuilding contests.
After the Ms. Olympia contest concludes, the Mandalay Bay parking garage is full of angry, squealing tires and the smell of impatiently burned rubber. Everson retires to his hotel with Koumas. But for some of the crowd, the party is just beginning.
You know that glaring guy at the nightclub, the steroidal-looking fellow who's about medium height or shorter? He wears black pants and an extra-tight ribbed V-neck shirt. Sometimes he wears a single gold or silver chain, and he always has close-cropped hair set tight with styling gel. He carries a cell phone. He's clean-shaven, encircled by a perimeter of cologne, and is often accompanied by a couple of friends who are exactly like him.
If you go to clubs, you're familiar with that guy. Now imagine hundreds of them, together at last, and you'll have an inkling of the scene inside the RumJungle dance club in the Mandalay Bay Hotel during Olympia weekend.
The club is packed. Everybody is crushed against a stranger, every motion causing a compression wave through the crowd, with still dozens more waiting outside to pay the $20 cover.
The scene inside RumJungle is worth the wait. Along the walls, massive sheets of water-covered Plexiglas extend from floor to ceiling, creating a hallucinatory waterfall effect punctuated by gas flames. Overhead, go-go dancers in neon bikinis slam against the bars of suspended cages. On stage, three live drummers flail wildly to keep time with the techno dance beats. And every so often, a nearly naked girl will fly through the club, twirling, suspended on a wire.
It's like the Ninth Circle of Techno. Warehouse-party energy fused with decadent Vegas showmanship. Despite calculated trendiness and $6-beer snobbery, RumJungle has tremendous body-moving energy.
Except hardly any of the Olympia crowd dances. The club is packed with a forest of tree-trunk men. The expansive dance floor is fairly empty, with groups of girls dancing alone.
Everson notes that when he first started weight training in the 1960s, bodybuilding was something a person did to become better at another activity.
"Over those years, things have changed to where, primarily because of Weider Publications, bodybuilding became an end in and of itself," he says. "Guys wanted bigger muscles whether they competed in other sports, competed in bodybuilding events or not."
In other words, many do not bodybuild to play a sport, to be more active or, for that matter, to dance till 4 a.m.. They build muscles to build more muscles.
It comes down to the oldest debate in bodybuilding: fitness vs. muscle. Are you working out to be healthy or just to look good? And at what point do the drugs erode the very reason humans find a well-defined body attractive -- that an admirable physique indicates health and vitality and strength?
The RumJungle DJ puts on a track by DJ FeelGood called "Use Your Body":
You got the bod
You got the bod
You got the body
Now you gotta use it!
The tree trunks pay no attention.
While the dot-com world crashed, the supplement industry was quietly booming. It still is
When talking to supplement-company representatives, one gets a sense of imperious momentum, an attitude of "sell now, worry later." Unlike with FDA-approved drugs, for which a product's effectiveness and risks must be documented prior to release, a supplement company is responsible for its own product testing. Company representatives claim that this is an incentive to be more responsible.
"The bigger the company gets, the more concerned they are about making it real," says Vincent Andrich, senior director of sports nutrition for EAS. "One of the reasons there will always be small companies in this business is because they'll be more nimble, they'll be quicker to market on initial science than the bigger guys. So the bigger companies are slower, but they tend to do more homework because they've got better legal departments, better attorneys and better science resources. You don't get a yes from anybody real quick."
After Bill Phillips left MET-Rx in 1994, he helped make EAS one of the biggest supplement companies in the world, posting a reported 350 percent revenue increase between 1994 and 1998 and signing sponsors such as John Elway and former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe. The televised product placements became so overwhelming that the NFL told the Broncos to quit wearing clothing and accessories bearing the EAS name.
At the company's Olympia booth, Andrich and a fleet of models sporting perfectly rippled abdominals give EAS product information and gift bags to hordes of weight trainers. Andrich has a straightforward, if nonchalant, attitude about his company's push for bigger and better chemicals.
"Sometimes when research is exciting and looks good, if there's really an aggressive marketing group, [a company] can stretch product claims too much," he says. "Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't."
Though bodybuilders complain about the glut of ineffective products, many appreciate this freedom of experimentation. It harks back to the idea of bodybuilders as fitness pioneers. The benefits of weight training, high-protein diets and eating small but frequent meals were championed by bodybuilders years before they were embraced by the general public.
"Bodybuilders tend to be more experimental in their approach to use different performance-enhancing substances and training programs," Andrich adds.
And sometimes when a new type of product is released, competitors will launch their own version without hesitation. "That happens a lot," Andrich says. "The business emanates from categories. There's a lot of things that can happen, because it's capitalism."
Asked about Planet Muscle, Andrich says that Everson "does speak the truth as he knows it." But he notes that the publisher has his own biases and product preferences, just like everybody else.
A close look at Planet Muscle reveals that Andrich is right.
In one article about sex-drive enhancement products, there's an enlarged box of text that reads "Doctor's Liquid Libido is currently almost impossible to get, so far, and we are trying to get the good Doctors to actually advertise in Planet Muscle. But until then, call for updated information, to see if we hope to have some available."
The ruse sounds awfully similar to Connelly's earlier description of a typical muscle-magazine ploy to generate artificial demand for a product.
Deeper in the magazine, there's a full-page ad for Doctor's Liquid Libido, complete with a P.O. Box for orders. The address is in Highlands Ranch.
In February, Everson plans to debut Planet Muscle on the newsstands to compete alongside M&F, Ironman, Flex, Pump and the rest of the bigtime muscle mags. He will gradually phase out his free distribution. He says it was a decision that he made reluctantly.
"The reality with the cost of printing and postage is that it's price-prohibitive. You almost have to be on the stands," he says, though he declines to discuss specific finances. "Not to mention, I want the message to reach as many people as I can."
Everson says he wants more writers and better photos in the magazine; he also wants to set up a laboratory to analyze supplements so that his readers will know exactly what they're buying. He wants to be the honest man in the dishonest business.
But what about the Liquid Libido article?
Everson says he gives Smith, his partner, a few pages to help supplement his salary. The reader doesn't know this, of course, but that's what makes the pages valuable. Still, Liquid Libido is an Everfit product, and Everfit is wholly owned by Everson.
"My personal opinion is that Doctor's Liquid Libido is one of these fifty-fifty products: Half of it will help, and half of it will do shit," Everson admits. "So yes, you may consider that I went a bit overboard on that promotion."
Everson tries to describe the awkwardness of his editorial stance.
"I gotta find a midway position," he says. "I certainly support my advertisers. The ones that are legitimate, I give them plugs here and there. It's a little sickening; it's almost incestual. I don't want to allow advertorials in my magazine at all. They really make the reading of the magazine bad. They give the magazine a really bad feel. They're not a journal anymore of solid, reliable training information. It's just a big advertisement."
Writing in Planet Muscle, Everson once defended himself against a letter writer who accused him of being a whore for a line of products.
"I thought the letter was extremely accurate," Everson wrote, then added, "At least I am an honest and consistent whore."
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