However, the night was equally remembered for a catastrophic meltdown from Linford Christie, in the twilight of his eventful career...
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His face strained, jaws contracted and muscles taut, Linford Christie was incandescent with rage. He had just passed up a fresh opportunity to inscribe his name into the Pantheon of greats. Along with many of the spectators at the Tokyo World Championships in 1991, Christie must have reconciled himself to the fact that his ship had sailed. Old bones don't make for good sprinters, and Christie, at 31, was already playing overtime.
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Still on the right side of 30, the great Carl Lewis had once again got the upper hand. Just as he had in Rome, four years earlier. And at Seoul in 1988. In the Worlds as well as the Olympics, King Carl had the bright idea of riding on the coattails of the untouchable but soon-to-be outcast Ben Johnson. Once unmasked and caught by the authorities, Big Ben – or Benoid, as some of his peers referred to him – was forced to hand over his illegal hoard of gold. Lewis was soon given what was rightfully his. And Christie, who had won a bronze in the 1987 Worlds, was duly elevated to vice-Olympic champion.
Three years on, in Tokyo, Christie now found himself in a desperate situation. Because not only had Lewis put him in his place, but an all-American clean sweep had overshadowed what was otherwise a stellar performance.
The golden age of US sprinting may have been coming to an end but, over in Japan, the star-spangled banner was still catching both the imagination and the wind. Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell exploded that evening to burn Christie's wings. And it wasn't as if he could have done any better: never before had he ran the 100 metres as fast. But a European record time of 9.92 was scant consolation for missing out on a medal.

Carl Lewis #1136 of the USA runs a World Record time of 9.86 seconds to win the Men's 100 meter event of the 1991 IAAF World Championships in Athletics held in the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, Japan on August 25, 1991. Other visible runners are Dennis Mitche

Image credit: Getty Images

The greatest 100 metres in history

Christie's only fault was to be cast in the greatest 100 metres in history as merely a secondary character in what proved to be a thriller boasting more leads than a Hollywood blockbuster. A world record from Lewis (9.86), two continental records and, above all, six athletes coming in under 10 seconds: we would not witness such a competitive final again until the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
This was hardly comforting to the man who finished fourth. Christie could not stomach his failure. Especially since he believed that the American who kept him off the podium did so unfairly. Dennis Mitchell had a false start, he claimed. And it was true that Mitchell's reaction time was suspect, for he left the blocks after 90 tiny milliseconds (0.09). Scientific studies are unanimous in dictating that any reaction faster than 100 milliseconds (0.1) is humanly impossible, but an exception was made for Mitchell, who clearly had an exceptional talent for getting away at the gun.
Of course, the starter could have called everyone back and asked them to go again. But he didn't. And Christie was the big loser. In the coming months, he would push very hard in favour of hardening the rule. Ultimately with success: it was soon agreed that any reaction time below 0.1 seconds would be automatically considered a false start. Ironically, this new rule would come back to haunt him that July evening in 1996 after two false starts in front of the stunned Atlanta crowd…
But for now, the embittered Christie occupied himself by insisting, in textbook Christie fashion, that he was "the best 31-year-old sprinter in the world". The oldest runner in the final of his third World Championships, the Briton now considered hanging up his spikes.
And yet…
In less than a year, he would become the 100 metres Olympic champion. The oldest in history – at 33 years, three months and three days. "There's no Carl, there's no Ben," the 1988 silver medallist said at the Montjuic stadium in Barcelona. "Today is my day."
And things would get better for Christie. In 1993, he had the world at his feet by becoming world champion in Stuttgart. This time round, Lewis was there. But he had a little say over matters and Linford finally got his gold medal. Better late than never.

Bailey, a champion from nothing

The night Linford Christie became champion of pretty much everything – since he now held the World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth crowns – Donovan Bailey was champion of precisely nothing. Granted, the 25-year-old took part in the World Championships in Stuttgart, but he was barely an asterisk in Germany since he was only a standby for the Canadian 4x100 relay team. The only thing he had in common with the man whose reign he would soon end were his Jamaican roots.
While Christie's family opted for England and London when they upped sticks from Saint Andrew, Bailey's father went to Canada. Oakville, Ontario was, meteorologically speaking, a far cry from the Caribbean climate which had welcomed Bailey into the world. But swapping Manchester Parish, in the Jamaican mountains, for the north of the American continent, Bailey remained athletically inclined. "He showed his athletic skills from grade one. He always came first in races," recalls Claris Lambert, one of his teachers. Aged 16, Bailey ran the 100 metres in 10:65.
The Canadian was a raw talent. He ran fast, jumped high and enjoyed practically all sports. Armed with both speed and agility, the youngest of four Bailey brothers preferred basketball, a sport where his ability to leap in excess of a metre high did his chances of success no harm. However his size, on the other hand, turned out to be a stumbling block: 1.85m for a power forward was too small. Too bad: Bailey's future didn't lie on the basketball court.

A Porsche at 22

Sport may have been Bailey's passion, but it was not a valid livelihood in the eyes of his father, George. The man who left Jamaica to write his family another future was a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. Running was all well and good but working was far better. Soon, the young Bailey found himself juggling two careers. But he took one more seriously than the other and by the time he was 22, Bailey had become a successful businessman. Through his work as a marketing and investment consultant, he bought a house and drove a Porsche 911 convertible.
"I could have left high school and run track right away, but that wasn't what I wanted," Bailey told Sports Illustrated in 1996.
I wanted a nice house, money, fast cars. I was taught to work real hard, to work on my own. When I got the material things I wanted and turned back to sprinting, I think it worked against me. Coaches said I had a bad attitude, that I didn't have a work ethic. I think they resented me. I was a 22-year-old with a Porsche, and they were 35-year-old men driving station wagons.
It's not too hard to see why they resented Bailey. As a teenager, he admitted he only got into running to meet girls. Bailey was out to have a good time. And such a lifestyle was hardly compatible with what was required to be a high-level athlete.

10.36 in 1993

Bailey made more of an impression behind the wheel of his car than on the track. This was no huge surprise as he didn't dedicate nearly enough time to running. For him running was something he enjoyed and something for which he had a rare and innate talent. But he still hadn't committed himself to the track. And so, he inevitably started to stagnate. 10 years after running 10:65 in 1983, his PB was still only 10:36. Progress of sorts, but too glacial for a 26-year-old to make an impact. It was enough to shine at the Canadian Championships, though, given the void Ben Johnson had left in his wake. But on the world scene, it was nothing.
Upset at being overlooked for the Worlds in 1993 and anxious not to have any regrets later in life, Bailey forced himself to go all-in to see if he had what it took. It was at this stage in his career when he went to see the man who would change it – a certain Dan Pfaff. The track and field coach at Louisiana State University was the trainer of his old high school friend Glenroy Gilbert, who would go on to be part of the winning relay team in Atlanta. Pfaff was curious to see what Bailey had to offer. There was nothing to lose.
So Bailey moved to Louisiana, where he quickly convinced Pfaff of his special talent. Pfaff made his runner put in the hours. Sprint training, weightlifting and improving his diet, Bailey worked like a man possessed under his new coach. And the miracle soon happened. No, Bailey did not become the beautiful sprinter that he would never be – more on that later – but he did get faster. Much faster. After a few months' serious work, the Canadian trimmed a third of a second from his time, running 10.03 in June 1994 in Duisburg. Just over 13 months later, he would be world champion.

Uneasy on the eye but effective

It was not a miracle. The talent was always there – he just lacked focus and hard work. No, the real miracle was that Bailey was capable of running so fast while looking so bad.
The 1980s was a decade that witnessed the contrasting styles of the graceful Carl Lewis and the superhuman, supercharged Ben Johnson. Bailey introduced a third, unlikely, way of running. One that nobody wished to copy. "I'm the ugliest sprinter to watch! Lewis moves flexibly while I stomp and punch the air. It's really horrible," he admitted from the sidelines of the Gothenburg World Championships in 1995.
From head to toe, Bailey did indeed look odd. Above those powerfully long legs he had a tiny 28-inch waist and then a bulky upper body which didn't seem in proportion with his lower half. A neurological disorder in his left hip meant the Canadian strode farther with his right leg than with his left – a tortuous imbalance which made him wobble out of the blocks and arch his back as he pounded the track. In the words of Sports Illustrated, "[he] looked like someone dashing for the last chopper out of Saigon".
But if his style seemed to defy the laws of physics, it seemed to be increasingly effective. In April 1995, Bailey duly broke the 10-second barrier with 9.99 at Baton Rouge for a new national record. Then he clocked 9.91 at the Canadian Championships. All of a sudden, Bailey was the real deal. Along with Bruny Surin, he was the best thing to happen to Canadian athletics for a considerable time – certainly since the downfall of he who no longer could be named.

Winning the trust of 27 million people

Seven years after the scandal at Seoul, the shadow of Ben Johnson still loomed large. Bailey used to idolise Johnson as a youngster – like the rest of the country. But as an adult, he was forced to do all he could to distance himself from the man. For mud stuck – and because of Big Ben, a Canadian running fast inevitably raised eyebrows.
Before the Gothenburg Worlds in 1995, for which he was now one of the favourites, Bailey recalled the whispers which accompanied each of his outings and his times:
I'll give you an example of the paranoia that surrounds us: during the last three weeks, I've been tested six times… Back home, the public and sponsors have long since left us. With Bruny Surin and me, this is starting to change. I'm trying to gain the trust of 27 million people.
If Bailey filled the void after Johnson's betrayal, he would also occupy the space left behind by the deterioration of US sprinting. With Carl Lewis no longer at the top level and Leroy Burrell, the world record holder (9.85), not at Gothenburg, the title held out its arms towards Bailey or Surin, the other man to go under 10 seconds that year. As for Christie, he was beginning to show his age. The British veteran dug deep in the heats and made it to the final. But an injury saw him finish well off the pace – and well behind Bailey.
Despite the second worst reaction time of the eight starters – a trademark frailty which had become his calling card – Bailey crossed the line in a time of 9.97 to edge his compatriot Surin (10:03) and the Trinidadian revelation Ato Boldon (10:03). A nobody two years earlier, Bailey had become the king in a Canadian one-two – and he'd not yet turned 28.
It was not simply down to hard work; Bailey's frame of mind had also given him an edge. "Donovan was calm before Gothenburg, and all those other guys were tense. I think it's because he had a life before sprinting and knows he'll have a life after sprinting. If all hell broke loose and he ended up penniless, he'd still have friends. There aren't many people on the continent who could make that statement." This was the take of Pfaff, the man who transformed Bailey into a winner – and did so, remarkably, without changing the way he ran.
"Look at a tape of the Worlds," Bailey would later say. "I skate out of the blocks. My head is up. My back is arched. I'm okay from 30 [metres] to 70, but I scream at that point because I start losing it. Sprinting is power, explosion. It's like dunking a basketball. Gothenburg was me coming down the lane for a two-handed tomahawk dunk and then slipping to the side of the basket and doing a one-hander." Well, he always was a basketball fan…

Fredericks, the man to beat

Mike Marsh also went for a slam dunk but, like his fellow Americans, found himself dispossessed mid-flight. Since the successes of Britain's Harold Abrahams (in 1924) and Canada's Percy Williams (in 1928), the Americans had never missed out on two Olympic 100 metre titles on the bounce. Would this sequence continue? After Britain's win through Christie in '92, would Bailey strike for the Canadians in '96? It would all be decided in Atlanta, where such a predicament was inconceivable in the eyes of Mike Marsh (fifth at Gothenburg in 10.10).
"A year away from the Games at home, we need to react. We cannot let that happen," Marsh said. But if US sprinting still had a deep pool of talent to draw from, it no longer possessed an exceptional athlete in the mould of Carl Lewis over 100 metres. And 1996 would prove to be no more favourable to the sprinters of the Star-Spangled Banner.
On the eve of the Atlanta Games, the man who stood head and shoulders above the rest was not an American. He wasn't a Canadian, either. He came from Namibia and went by the name of Frankie Fredericks. A consistent high finisher, rarely winning but tirelessly elegant, the 28-year-old had run the fastest that Olympic year, twice coming close to beating Burrell's world record (9.86 at Lausanne and 9.87 at Helsinki). Fredericks was very much the man to beat.
What about his training partner and good friend, Linford Christie? His participation in the Games had been shrouded in mystery – although that was nothing new for the ageing British runner. And Bailey? He may have beaten the 50-metre world record at the start of the year at the Reno Air Games and run a beautiful 9.93 at Lausanne, but he had been regularly beaten during the meets he took part in.
"There are knowledgeable track people who think Gothenburg was a fluke," his coach Dan Pfaff admitted. But the man himself was not too concerned. "Even if I win in 11.50 it would still be great," Bailey said. He knew full well that a real competition was incomparable to a meet. It was not the fastest who would win, but the strongest. And for his first Olympic Games, he was confident that it would be him. "I'll win if I do everything right," he vouched.

From tragedy comes celebration

July 27, 1996. It was not yet 9pm but the day had already dragged on far too long. The second Saturday of the Games of the XXVI Olympiad had been tarnished by the sorry stamp of terrorism. At the stroke of 1.25am a bomb blast in Centennial Park left two people dead and 111 injured. Coming just 10 days after the explosion of TWA Flight 800 and the suspicion of an attack that cast a shadow over the tragedy, the atmosphere on the other side of the Atlantic could not have been more tense.
A day which started under the spectre of shock would end in jubilation after one of the craziest evenings in the history of athletics – both in terms of the script and the performances of the protagonists. Crowned for a second time in a row over 100 metres, Gail Devers helped restore some balm to the heart of America, with a little help from triple jumper Kenny Harrison.
For there were echoes of David slaying Goliath as Harrison somehow managed to beat the seemingly invincible Jonathan Edwards – ending the reign of the man who had twice broken the world record in Gothenburg. In an uncanny twist of fate, the big star of those 1995 Worlds red flagged his first two jumps, the same jumps where he set both records in Sweden. Edwards would not steal Donovan Bailey's thunder. This honour would go to Linford Christie. Not for long, mind. But just long enough to put him off his start.
The Olympic Stadium was rammed when the athletes entered the arena. The world record, which Leroy Burrell took away from Carl Lewis once again two years earlier (9:85), would soon be toppled. Braggart as much as a visionary, Boldon, speaking before the race, foresaw it all: "The world record is living its last hours. I will be the first to say it. The final will be run in 9.8 or 9.7!" No pressure, then.
On the road to the final, the Trinidadian won his three races and even ran a thunderous 9.93 in the semi-final. Bailey, meanwhile, economised his efforts. He dominated his first-round heat. After that, the world champion was happy to coast. Second in his quarter-final behind Christie, second in his semi-final behind Fredericks, the Canadian did not so much bring the house down as knock politely on the door.
And here we were, faced with the unparalleled fascination and excitement that comes with any Olympic 100 metre final. No event is imbued with as much emotion and tension over such a short space of time. The electricity that sparked up this 1996 final was initially negatively charged. The 85,000 spectators gathered in the stands of the newly built stadium in the Georgian city were nervous and preoccupied, their excitement tinged with understandable apprehension and restraint following the tragic events of the previous night.
On a sporting plane, the hosts had a lot at stake. Two Americans were present in the final – Mike Marsh and Dennis Mitchell. In addition to these two sprinters with the weight of a nation on their shoulders, there was an old lion who dreamed of one final roar…

False start after false start

In lane 2, with Mike Marsh to his left and Ato Boldon to his right, Linford Christie was hemmed in. No longer the fastest – had he ever been? – he was banking on being the cleverest. So he would try a different tactic. Because there's no way he could pull off the biggest bank heist of the century armed only with a water pistol.
Cheered by the crowd – much more than the local Marsh, it's worth adding – Christie remained completely passive. His face displayed no emotion. Like a Buckingham Palace guardsman, he refrained from smiling or blinking – just fixed his dead-eyed glare on the horizon. As later put by Sports Illustrated, he was "an Easter Island statue of concentration". (There was a good reason why Bailey called him Mr Stonehenge.) Christie's tunnel vision homed onto his one and only target: the white line one-hundred metres away that separated him from immortality.
The eight finalists got into position. You could cut the tension with a knife. "On your marks… Get set…"
Out shots Christie from the blocks before the others. But it was a false start. Raising both arms to the sky in frustration, he accepted his penalty. But he had no choice: if the elder statesman wanted to achieve his goal, he needed every advantage he could get. Put simply: his start in the final must be as dramatically good as his semi-final one had been bad.
The runners were called back for a second start. They went through the motions again. Cool as a cucumber, Christie crouched back down with the sword of Damocles hanging above his head in the form of the yellow card attached to his starting blocks.
This time the race started for good. Boldon blasted off like a bullet. He had the edge. But less than two seconds after the rockers were launched – an eternity on the scale of a sprint – a second shot sounded out, drawing a curtain down on this second dash for the line. Off to a good start, Nigeria's Davidson Ezinwa threw his hands to his head, cutting short his effort in frustration. This time the yellow card was issued to the impetuous Boldon.
Take three. The low murmur from the stands had morphed into a general rumbling that mirrored the accumulated tension down on track. Once again, all eight men went about their various routines as if for the first time. Some slapped their cheeks, others their thighs; some jumped, some crouched; Christie just glared. Everyone pretended nothing had changed as they prepared themselves mentally for battle.

1992 Olympic champion Linford Christie of Great Britain reacts after being disqualified from the men's 100m dash at the Atlanta Olympics athletics competition for two false starts 27 July

Image credit: Getty Images

The king is dead? Long live the king!

Bang goes the pistol! They set off for a third time… But another shot suddenly echoed through the bewildered stadium.
To the naked eye, the infraction was barely detectable; the offender did not so much as steal a march as merely anticipate the gun. Like Mitchell, five years earlier in Tokyo. Hands on hips, Christie pretended to look surprised while waiting to learn the identity of the guilty party. But his expression fooled no one: he already knew. The marksman approached and brandished another yellow card. His face registered a spasm of dismay as Christie swore that he'd done nothing wrong. He appeared to mouth the words, "What was that for?", as he went to scrutinise the monitor which confirmed his mistake. A second false start meant disqualification. The dream was over for the reigning champion.
Feeling responsible but not guilty, Christie then decided the race would not start without him. The king is dead? Long live the king! In complete denial, he returned to stand in front of his block. His time was up but he refused to leave. To complete his self-destruction, he petulantly removed the red card placed upon his block.
Worse than being beaten in the final, Christie faced the anti-climactic nightmare of not being able even to defend his title. He insisted to all and sundry that he was going nowhere, the embarrassment of both the Olympic champion and the officials clearly palpable. With his rivals growing angry, he even called on the crowd for their support. It had become a farce.
Soon the running referee John Chaplin entered the fray. The American stuck to the decision and showed Christie his incriminating reaction times. "I simply walked up and showed him a red card and explained very politely: 'You have two false starts and you have to leave'."

What goes around, comes around

But Christie could not accept his cruel fate. Like Mitchell five years earlier, the Briton had made the mistake of over-anticipating the starting gun. And now he refused to say goodbye. The 1992 Olympic champion's reaction time was 0.086 seconds instead of the regulatory 0.1 seconds. By just 14 milliseconds, he was caught out by the very rule whose enforcement he strongly backed following his Tokyo heartbreak in 1991 – when he felt Mitchell had deprived him of bronze. The cruel irony.
"For the first time in my life," he would later say about his disqualification. "There were cameras flashing, people shouting, it was mayhem. You react to any noise you hear. I'm just sorry for the people of Britain." Christie would even suggest something of a conspiracy against him by claiming that his protest may have succeeded "if it had been anywhere else but America".
After what seemed like an eternity, Christie turned towards the stands, took off his jersey and made to leave the stage. But he then returned, despite the orders of the volunteers trying to escort him out of the stadium. No, he would watch the race from the edge of the track – in the hope he would see his friend Fredericks win in his place. No longer thinking straight, he also had another idea in mind: he would run his own race afterwards – embark on his own lap of honour in front of the crowd. "Why not? I felt it was me they wanted. I was like the people's champion. I felt it was a sad way to go out, just going down the tunnel. So I did my little bit and got a round of applause."

Linford Christie of Great Britain stands in the background as the finalists get in the starting blocks for the start of the 100m dash at the athletics event of the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games on July 27, 1996 at the Olympic stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.

Image credit: Getty Images

'The most unprofessional race ever'

Meanwhile, the remaining finalists waited with varying degrees of patience during Christie's meltdown. Now deprived of a target runner in the next lane, Ato Boldon in particular was furious. The long delay had seen him lose his focus. Swept up by emotion, the 23-year-old Trinidadian was staring daggers at the British troublemaker, still hanging around just metres away. "Ato felt I was disrespectful because I should have walked off," Christie later said.
But he's a very excitable, impressionable young guy. I forgive him for that.
Boldon was not the only runner feeling aggrieved. An equally infuriated Marsh would later claim that Christie's "100 percent unsportsmanlike" actions had a huge impact on the race, while Dennis Mitchell, close to tears, would tell NBC:
I have never been as prepared for a race in my life. The delay ruined everything. That was the most unprofessional race I have ever been in.
Marsh and Mitchell had good reason to feel hard done by, for neither became Olympic champions at Atlanta that evening. In fact, for the first time since Montreal in 1976, no Americans finished on the podium.
But what of Donovan Bailey in all this? Well, he kept his cool. For twenty long minutes, the finalists went around in circles, wound themselves up and stewed in their thoughts. But not Bailey. The tense atmosphere completely passed over his head and broad shoulders.
While his rivals were getting overwrought, he stayed relaxed. After all, Christie's DQ meant one less opponent; only seven now vied for the holy grail. "Concentrate on the little things, on your blocks, don't think of the others, don't look at anybody… I thought about everything Dan told me. That allowed me to be more relaxed. Maybe if the first start would have gone, I would have not run such a calm race."
The key was serenity – a word which encapsulated Bailey. When the race got going for the fourth and final time, he was so calm, in fact, that he couldn't avoid one of his trademark wobbly starts – you know, the really slow ones for which he'd become known… As usual, he straightened too soon. And as usual, his reaction time was bordering on the catastrophic. To be more precise, at 0.174 seconds, it's the worst that night. And yet, while his engine spluttered, it avoided cutting out and was very soon roaring into life.

'First, I accelerated, then I went for it'

After 30 metres, the Canadian seemed well off the pace. Like Fredericks, he was far behind Boldon who, for all his worries, was off to a flyer. But the incredible levers in Bailey's impossibly long legs started steamrolling the track as Boldon began to sense the danger from the man in black and white. The Canadian would later summarise his race in eight words: "First, I accelerated, then I went for it." Textbook Bailey.
Hitting his top speed just before the sixty-metre mark, Bailey then managed to sustain his surge far longer than the others. By the look of it, he didn't slow down at all. And, in his particular style of a disjointed puppet, he swept up Boldon and staved off Fredericks.
The finish line was a release of emotion. Mouth agape, palms open to the world and knees raised, Bailey flew towards immortality. Two years ago, he was still a nobody. Now he was the fastest man in history. 9.84 was his time. Quite inconceivably, at the end of the scenario least favourable to such a chronometric explosion, the Canadian placed the cherry on the cake with a new landmark time. Even Bailey never saw it coming. "I didn't think about the record at all, especially since every time I had it in mind, I messed up."
Like Carl Lewis – the icon who was cheese to Bailey's chalk – he was now the holder of both World and Olympic titles, with the world record to boot. But there's one big difference between Bailey and the hero of Los Angeles 1984. Bailey being Bailey, he was a champion of great restraint and little fanfare – unlike Lewis or other more flamboyant champions, who revelled at being in the limelight. And days later, one of those same champions, Michael Johnson, would steal his thunder, his double heroics in golden shoes quickly surpassing Bailey's achievement. Both men, incidentally, would meet a few months later at Toronto to determine the identity of the "World's Fastest Man" over 150 metres in an unsanctioned gimmick that saw Bailey win $1.5m over a hamstrung Johnson.
But that night of July 27, 1996, with his daughter in his arms, his father at his side and the Canadian maple leaf draped over his shoulders, Bailey couldn't have been further away from such preoccupations. He was quite simply jubilant and relieved to have become what he might never have been.
As for Linford Christie, the man who did his utmost best to detract from Bailey's triumph was never seen again on the main stage. Symbolically, the sprinter threw his spikes in the dustbin on leaving the Olympic Stadium that evening. He would only crop up again at the odd second-class meet. He would not stay clear of the headlines, though – most notably after a positive test for nandrolone in 1999, 11 years after his first adverse finding. Once again it was a case of two strikes and out.
Written by Maxime Dupuis and translated by Felix Lowe
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