Richard Whitehead: The Usain Bolt Of The Paralympics On His Way To Tokyo 2020

Richard Whitehead MBE, Photo Credit: Richard Whitehead MBE

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme Ltd. interviews Richard Whitehead, MBE, known until 2 years ago by millions for his distinct running style, world records and multiple gold medals in the T42 100m and 200m.

Richard Whitehead runs like lightning — he is the Usain Bolt of The Paralympics!

Since 2017 Richard still has the formidable winning running style but was forced to change classifications from T42 to T61 in which he is also a top performer.

However, the T61 does not have a 100m event in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, so this limits the amount of medals he could come away with.

Whilst Richard states in this interview that the change in his official classification represents a huge disappointment for him, he is adaptable, driven and determined to achieve great things in Tokyo.

His resilience has been evident throughout his sporting career. Even to the extent of also running long distance, unusual for a sprinter. A multi discipline athlete since childhood, Richard is a world record breaker in marathon and half marathon running in the category for ‘athletes with a double amputation’, (his marathon world record was beaten by Marko Cheseto at the Boston Marathon in 2019). Since the new classification, Richard is a gold and silver medallist in T61 200m.

Here, Richard talks of his life growing up with a disability, career as a world class athlete running with Össur prosthetic legs and his reaction to one of his events being taken away in 2017 after the last Paralympics in Rio, effectively removing his chances of winning another medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

Richard Whitehead’s early aspirations

“I was shy and very quiet as a child. All my grandmother wanted for me was that I learn to drive and get a girlfriend” Richard Whitehead, MBE, the “Usain Bolt of the Paralympics.”

Richard Whitehead comments on his success

“They always list the materialistic honours. Whether that’s gold medals at the Paralympics at London 2012 or Rio, world titles or the MBE that I received from Prince Charles in 2012. I think that those things are very nice and a lot of them are great for the family but for me, I’d say I’m not governed by that success. Yes, it gives me a great platform to open up conversations, but I’m successful because I’ve worked hard, been dedicated and disciplined. I’ve had people around me that have given me the guidance and the opportunity to be the best that I ever could be.”

Commenting on his change of classification from T42 to T62

“So, it can be quite frustrating as an athlete having to change. I started as a marathon runner and then had to change to 200 meters because I didn’t have a long-distance event. To run in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and get the gold in the 200 meters and the silver in the 100 meters and then to have the event cut is obviously quite frustrating. Not just for myself, but also for the legacy that you leave for other athletes. It’s really important that when you’re competing that you’re not just competing for yourself but for the sustained impact that your event has on the next generation of athletes.”

Growing up with a disability to reach become an elite athlete

Richard Whitehead MBE, Photo Credit: Richard Whitehead MBE

Richard grew up in Nottingham, UK where he overcame the challenges that a double through the knee congenital amputation brings to reach the top of his sport worldwide. Since childhood, Richard has taken part in a broad range of sports. He was a swimming teacher before competing for Team GB as an ice sledge hockey player at the 2006 Winter Paralympics in Turin and then transitioned into running but even then, he did not stick to one event.

Amongst Richard’s many achievements, he broke the world record at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, completing his run in two hours and 42 seconds. He has completed 40 marathons in 40 days.

He won the gold medal in the 200m at the London 2012 Paralympics, defended his title in the 200 T42 and won gold at the Rio Paralympics 2016.

Furthermore, he claimed gold at the 2017 IPC World Championships and Silver at the World Para Championships 2019 in Dubai, relinquishing his Gold medal to Ntando Mahlangu, a 17-year-old South African who claimed gold.

Running for a purpose, not just for medals

Richard is keen to be known for more than his achievements as an elite athlete. He is very active on the keynote speech circuit inspiring people with his “human story”, is an outspoken “athlete’s voice” and works with many charities both as a fund raiser and ambassador.

In memory of his friend Simon Mellows and inspired by amputee Terry Fox, Richard ran 40 marathons in 40 days, completing over 900 miles and raising money for Sarcoma UK and Scope charities.

Richard has worked with charities Meningitis Trust and Autism Awareness as well as helping amputees injured as a result of the Syrian Civil War in Jordan with humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontier (MSF).

Richard Whitehead MBE, Photo Credit: Richard Whitehead MBE

Richard’s hopes for Tokyo 2020 Beyond The Medals

Richard hopes that the games will present new opportunities for social mobility and promote diversity and equality as well as the utilisation of new technologies.

Below, the full text interview:

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:00:26] Who are you?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:00:28] That’s a question that, as an athlete, I get asked quite a bit professionally, but I’m not asked that question as a person. I think when you look back at your career and whether your career is solely one profession or spans lots of different areas, you gravitate to your successes. Whether that’s success on the track or in your social life or the success that comes from your professional success.

[00:01:08] For me, people look at the Paralympic gold medals and world titles and the work that I’ve done with charities. I’d say that I don’t want to be governed by my success on the track or my disability but would like for people to gravitate to Richard Whitehead because of my core values and my philosophies and that’s the ability to offer, inspire and liberate others through the power of sport and to always being open to new ideas by being dynamic enough to listen and to offer that conversation. I’m a person who has grown as life has gone on. I’ve gone from very much a shy and relaxed kind of person that would sit back to someone who’s benefitted from sport giving me the opportunity to push myself forward and become a leader in whatever I want to be.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:02:17] You have ten gold medals.

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:02:20] I’ve got a couple, yes, I know. When people talk about success, they Google or look up someone on Wikipedia and get the rundown on their successes. They always list the materialistic honours. Whether that’s gold medals at the Paralympics at London 2012 or Rio, world titles or the MBE that I received from Prince Charles in 2012. I think that those things are very nice and a lot of them are great for the family but for me, I’d say I’m not governed by that success. Yes, it gives me a great platform to open up conversations, but I’m successful because I’ve worked hard, been dedicated and disciplined. I’ve had people around me that have given me the guidance and the opportunity to be the best that I ever could be.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:03:26] Can you talk a little bit about your disciplines? They’ve changed recently, certainly in sprinting. You were T42 (Paralympic athlete classification) and now you’re T61, which means that you can’t compete in the 100 meters at the Paralympics in the Tokyo 2020 games. Could you talk about that?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:03:49] Yes, so Paralympic sports are governed by classification. Which, in certain instances, gives the athletes what’s meant to be a playing field to compete. The problem with classification is you isolate athletes instead of liberating athletes, in some cases. It’s not always a fair playing field as some athletes might have a lot more events than others and some might have events and then have them taken away. So, it can be quite frustrating as an athlete having to change. I started as a marathon runner and then had to change to 200 meters because I didn’t have a long-distance event. To run in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and get the gold in the 200 meters and the silver in the 100 meters and then to have the event cut is obviously quite frustrating. Not just for myself, but also for the legacy that you leave for other athletes. It’s really important that when you’re competing that you’re not just competing for yourself but for the sustained impact that your event has on the next generation of athletes.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:05:14] This must be hugely psychologically testing. You have to be quite mentally agile to cope with these situations, presumably. I have a question from an ex-marine who runs a company called Be Fearsome, his name is Tom Fearsome. He trains elite athletes to be fearsome in life and in sport. He’s really interested to hear how you cope mentally because you’ve worked so hard to attain these dreams. Whilst, you say your main focus is not on medals, that’s tough. How do you cope with that?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:06:05] Taking sports out of the equation, life has lots of challenges and obstacles that are physically as well as mentally challenging. In life, there are always people that are worse off than yourself and are facing situations that are very challenging or life-threatening and require support and guidance. Sport is an entity and a platform that I use as my workplace and as a way to hopefully support others in their journeys through life.

[00:07:08] Mentally, challenges come and go and it’s about how you attack those challenges and how you adapt to the scenarios in your environment and become a better person through that learning process. So, mentally, I’ve had lots of challenges with my impairment and conditions growing up as well as through sport. We all want society to be open and fair with equal opportunities and a level playing field. Unfortunately, within Paralympic sport and disability sport, that isn’t the case. Whether that’s the earning respect of Paralympic sport, as in sponsorship, or winnings through racing, we’re always continually fighting for more opportunities.

[00:08:09] I always say, I was never born with a silver spoon. I’ve had to earn every opportunity that I’ve had but that’s made me a better person. Mentally, we always need to be building on that and when I work physically on the track, I always work mentally as well, in respect to having better resilience and better ways of communicating with people to nullify some of those barriers and obstacles that could come up in the future.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:08:46] During career and early life, who did you connect with that helped you move forward in life, both psychologically and physically?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:09:01] I’ve had that question a couple of times and we also talk about role models and people that we look up to. Firstly, I think I had role models when I was growing up and then I remember having a conversation with my coach and her husband, Liz and Martin Yelling. We talked about role models and he had this imaginary sieve which he associated with all of the people he admired. He then shook the sieve and all those skills and good traits about them stuck to the side of the sieve. This focused on the good traits of the people as opposed to the actual people themselves. So, resilience, determination, adaptability etc.

[00:09:53] Sometimes with role models, especially in a society where social media is so apparent, they can be let down by individuals, which can be quite tough, especially for young people. To have a role model that they’re so embedded with and then all of a sudden that role model lets them down and then they have nobody to turn to.

[00:10:17] I remember growing up being close to my gran who just wanted me to be able to drive and get a girlfriend. As I was growing up, I had a lot of challenges educationally. Headmasters and teachers didn’t have the expertise to educate, inspire and support people with disabilities as there wasn’t an inclusion spectrum in the late 70s and early 80s. So, I looked to family members, like my mum and dad, to put me on the right path, especially through sport.

[00:11:04] The ideas around discipline and self-discipline are things that I still take forward now with my children, even with myself. I remember conversations with my gymnastics coach, he was all about building solid foundations, like balance, agility and coordination and then utilizing them in lots of different areas. So, be balanced in life, be balanced in work, etc. I still utilize that method now, even though I finished working in gymnastics at 14 years old. At 43 years old, I’m still trying to be more balanced, trying to be dynamic and trying to continually be better every day.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:11:59] So you’ve been involved in so many different sports: half marathons, marathons, gymnastics, swimming, you’re first time at the Paralympics was competing in sledge hockey.

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:12:17] Yeah and I think that builds your memory bank of stories, emotions and the various learning processes.

[00:12:30] I would say that it’s very similar to somebody that reads a lot and reads a lot of different books. Each chapter of my life has been different in lots of ways. I’ve met many incredible people that maybe haven’t had the recognition that they deserve as well as people from entertainment and sports. I’m continually improving as a person even though my level of success in sport has slowly started to not increase like it had been in the past.

[00:13:11] That’s why I’m happy with where I am within my sport because I know that I have so much more to offer behind the scenes as well as front of house. You need to appreciate people for being people and also look beyond their skillset as you can find little gems of knowledge within them that you can learn from. When I have people on my athletics team, I always say, yes, you’re a coach or a psychologist, but I’m looking for you to bring something slightly different to the table, so that we can be successful together and don’t always be governed by time and distance, because that’s very subjective.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:14:05] Can you tell us a little bit about the qualifying season leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. What’s in store for you, not just regarding the 200 meters but the other events as well.

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:14:21] It’s always very busy. Depending on how your season goes the year or two years before, you are adapting your program so that on your given day in Tokyo, you’re going to be successful. So, you try to be very specific. It’s like when you go to work on a Monday, you’re working to an agenda that has an end goal, whether that’s delivering a piece of work by the end of the week or by the end of the month. Well, my work started its cycle four years ago and Tokyo next year is the end result.

[00:15:05] That’s hard having the confidence to be able to deliver that plan or that piece of work. It’s about having the confidence and building the confidence over the four-year cycle through the people around you as well as the experiences you have on the track and off the track. Positive things happen to positive people, so you need to stay positive all the time and hopefully go into the games in the best shape you can.

[00:15:41] That can consist of racing all over the world to try and replicate the environment that you’ll be racing in while in Tokyo. Or it can be replicating your race strategy that you’re going to run. So, for instance, this is a 400-meter track where we are today and the track in Tokyo is 400 meters, so you just replicate the race conditions. It’s hard to explain to those that have never been an athlete but when you get to that start line, that’s your time and your platform and the world is looking at you. It’s a process that you go through, you don’t suddenly sprout like a flower, you have to build up to that one point. It’s about getting to that start line and being the best, you can be. If things haven’t gone right for you, then you still go in and deliver the best performance you can. Not everybody can win gold medals, but everybody can give their 100 percent.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:17:04] You’ll be doing the 200 meters in Tokyo and not the marathon?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:17:09] No, not the marathon. I’d love to run the marathon in the Paralympics and maybe in the future I will. But no, it’s a tough one, especially as you get older and your body changes as does the work that you can do physically and mentally as a 43-year-old. I found that when I changed from the marathon to the 200 meters there were so many ups and downs, I had to go through, so to race both at the moment would be tough. There’s not a marathon event available to me at Tokyo right now, which is one of the reasons I changed initially. If in the future there ever was, that’d definitely be something I’d be passionate about doing.

[00:18:05] One of the reasons why I’m passionate about the marathon event is because it’s an event that anybody can compete in. So, in the London Marathon for instance, or the New York Marathon, you can go down to the event and watch and be inspired by those runners that have got charity vests on. Or you can see the winners win in two hours, five minutes. You can walk, run or jog in six hours and you get the same medal as the winner. The same kind of support and guidance is given to the winner as those athletes that run in six or seven hours. It’s a very inspiring event.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:18:51] You’ve certainly broken some records in the marathons.

Richard Whitehead MBE, Marathon Record Holder [00:18:54] Yeah, I’d say two hours, 42 minutes is a good time! I still feel I’ve got a little bit of unfinished business there and I’ve already spoken to Liz who will be supporting me in the future when I go back to marathons after sprinting.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [ 00:19:10] For Sarcoma UK, you did an incredible charity run, 40 marathons in 40 days. It was over 900 miles, how is somebody able to do that?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:19:22] Yeah, It’s the mindset. I met so many incredible people on the way, including sarcoma sufferers and youngsters that had lost their limbs due to meningitis or sarcoma, what set my mindset was thinking about why I’m doing this challenge. It’s not all about the monetary side of support, a lot of it is about awareness and being able to bring sarcoma and cancer to the front of people’s thinking. That’s why I continue to help not just Sarcoma UK but all of the charities in the Midlands or in Nottingham, where I’m from, or nationally and internationally that I work with. I’ve done some great work with Médecins Sans Frontier (MSF) in Syria and Jordan with landmine victims. I was in Beirut and worked with the British ambassador over there and with Hezbollah with some of the landmine victims in the city.

[00:20:22] I think that’s where my mindset and my philosophy around what life means to me has changed because of those environments. Putting yourself out into those challenging environments that maybe due to the stigma and the press that we get over in the UK are seen as unsafe. But the world’s a big place that needs to have positivity and hopefully, I can do that through my platform, which is sport. But I want to stand for more than just sport.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:20:57] Can we talk about your legs? Can you tell us about the ones that you’re wearing at the moment and the blades that you use for sprinting?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:21:11] The technology that is now available, especially for those of us in the western world is quite high tech. The ones that I’m using now have processes in the knees. They’re made by Össur.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:21:38] The same suppliers as the actual blades you use?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:21:41] Yeah, that’s right. I’m lucky enough to have been supported by them since 2004. They’ve provided me with my running blades as well as my walking prosthetics. There isn’t the same kind of support for countries that don’t have the provision through national health, for instance, in South Africa and some of the Eastern Bloc countries. A lot of the athletes utilize the platform they have to support those that are less fortunate, to not necessarily get the same kind of technology, but to get a good platform to be able to walk and provide for their families as well as gain employment.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:22:27] How do they compare to Ottobock (manufacturer and supplier of prosthetic limbs)?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:22:33] It’s pretty much the same as comparing Nike to Adidas, they’re very similar.

[00:22:42] Obviously with brand ambassadors for certain components, you say that yours is the best. But I think we’re just looking for, as individuals and as athletes, a platform for success and these give me the opportunity to walk as well as to do my everyday activities. Also, there are loads of different and cool things that people do with prosthetics, whether it’s climbing, riding bikes, somersaults or whatever. For me, I just use them as a walking aid.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:23:22] How would they differ from a product like the bionics that Hugh Herr’s iWalk produces? Are these legs that you’re wearing now considered to be bionics or are they a different thing?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:23:39] Yeah, I think anything with processes embedded in is going down the route of being bionic. We’ve still got a long way to go in having technology that replicates the human leg and human hands, especially around touch. The body is a very complex piece of equipment and with some of the technology that’s around at the moment, it’s starting to get very close, but we’re still seeing things like amazing transplants where people are having human hands that are transplanted onto where they’ve lost limbs — that’s really incredible. To have the bionics around for people that have come back from Afghanistan or Iraq or, like myself were born without legs, is important as well as knowing that it’s improving.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:24:48] There are companies out there like Exoskeleton where people who are completely paralyzed can step into the equipment and walk. Do you think that companies and technology like that might change sporting events in the future?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:25:08] I think that sport has to evolve and not just in that respect. We’re starting to see how passports are changing with gender and I think sport needs to be accessible to everybody. With technology, it needs to be evolving in the respect that we want a level playing field and we want everybody to be able to access sport. That needs to start from grassroots all the way up to performance sport at the Paralympic and Olympic level.

[00:25:45] Athletes with prosthetics have competed at the Olympics before. Oscar Pistorius did in 2012. That gives Paralympic sport and sport for people with disabilities a platform to say that anything is possible. Also, it hopefully shows people that if you’ve got the belief to do anything in life, you can achieve anything. It’s not to say that when I win a gold medal in my sport, you have to replicate what I do, but that you see something in my performance that resonates in the challenges that you have to overcome in your personal life. A lot of people that reach out to me through social media have challenges in their lives and what they see me or one of my team-mates do empowers them to be better in their life.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:26:49] Do you work with scientists to improve your performance?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:26:55] We have technicians and scientists within Össur, and we have sports scientists at the University of Loughborough. I’m always looking for performances. It’s all about me putting in the work, but if there’s a technical issue in my running that I need to improve, there’s a lot of data that’s behind my training that can be looked at and then maybe tweaked in some areas.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:27:27] So who’s in your team? Presumably a nutritionist? A sports psychologist?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:27:35] Yeah, a nutritionist, a sports psychologist, doctors, coaches and my agent. You’ve got to incorporate your family as well because they’ve got a big part to play in your team. I have running partners as well as people I work with in the national team as well as here in Loughborough. I’m starting to work with some new people at Northampton Rugby. It’s all about trying to get people to add value in different ways. At this stage in my career, I still feel that I can improve in certain ways as to enable me to have the best opportunity in Tokyo.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:28:21] We’ve spoken about all the different people, pre the interview as well, that you have come into contact with. You’re an incredibly high-profile athlete — the Usain Bolt of Paralympic sport. Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met and what would you like to ask that person?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:28:51] I don’t get very starstruck so, at quite a lot of corporate events, I’m not generally someone that likes to take selfies with people. For me, it’d probably be people in my past that I’m just very interested by. For instance, I was inspired by Terry Fox to run my 40 marathons in 40 days. He died due to sarcoma when he tried to run from the east to the west of Canada. So, I’d like to meet him and understand why he was doing his run. I know he was doing it for Cancer research to raise millions and millions of pounds for that, but I’d like to understand, from him personally, some of the challenges that he’s had to overcome. Then maybe just people that don’t think the same as me. I like to surround myself with people that I trust and who are honest with me, but also people that maybe challenge me as well as have slightly different ways of thinking. I want to understand how they got to the point of thinking that way and that might involve different political views or views on humanity. I think it’s important to give people a platform to express their feelings even if you don’t agree with them so that people understand that we are all different.

[00:31:21] I don’t see many people, athletes or people in the public being honest enough to have that conversation. I’d like to be somebody that starts that conversation with those who want to have it. That’s probably not answering your question regarding a specific person, but it’s more about what I would like to be talking about to people that are actually not on the same wavelength as me.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:31:55] Tokyo 2020 is predicted as being an incredible Olympics. People were really inspired by the way that the Japanese people, sports officials and contestants behaved during the Rugby World Cup. I believe their mission statement is “sport can change the world” and there are three areas that they’re asking people to focus on. One is, striving for your dream, the other is, acceptance of diversity, and the third one is legacy. What would you like your legacy to be? How would you like to be remembered? In one of our conversations, you mentioned that you were off to pick up your kids on the school run. With them in mind, how would you like to be remembered?

Richard Whitehead MBE, gold medallist and world record breaker [00:33:02] I think, firstly every Olympics and Paralympics is different and has lots of positives and also highlights some of the negatives around the community and the culture of where the Olympics or Paralympics is taking place. So, London, obviously, were great games. It highlighted the Paralympic movement and how much that can move forward and change people’s perceptions. Before the Paralympics in 2012 there were probably no role models on TV that had disabilities. You look now and there’s quite a few that have impairments that are hidden as well as impairments that you can see. So that’s a positive. With Rio, there was some negatives around where the money was coming from. It was coming from the public purse. When I got out there, it changed people’s perception of disability.

[00:34:06] My coach is actually out in Rio at the moment and he said that the legacy for Rio was definitely being there for people with disabilities and they’re still transforming their lives. I think for Tokyo, the accessibility is a big issue. I know with accommodation and with the hotels in Tokyo, they’re not very accessible and hopefully, the games have that transformation. I know that the hotels there only have less than 1 percent of the rooms accessible. So, one or two rooms out of maybe a hundred are accessible to people with disabilities. This just isn’t acceptable. So, the games will highlight that. I think the positives from Tokyo will be social mobility and the ability for everybody to utilize technology.

[00:35:05] The reason why the Paralympic movement is so important is that the technology that they use in Tokyo will be around accessibility for people with disabilities but will be appropriate for everyone to use. This is because when you ‘problem solve’ in technology, you make things a lot easier for everybody. Going back to your question about legacy, I struggle with it. I struggle with the word inspiration and I struggle with the word legacy because I think you’re always kind of building your legacy in life and you’re always putting your footprint on different situations that can help people and help change people’s perceptions in a positive way. I’d like people to look beyond my sporting career and my disability and see the good work that I’ve hopefully done and that I’m passionate about. The vision is about having equal opportunities for those that have the same mindset and the ability to change people’s mindset from maybe something that’s mainly negative to something more accepting and positive.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:36:34] All the very best of luck in Tokyo 2020. Richard Whitehead MBE, thank you so much for your time, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

To follow Richard Whitehead on Twitter: @MarathonChamp

Andrea Macdonald, Founder, ideaXme

Credits: Andrea Macdonald interview video, text, and audio

If you liked this interview, be sure to check out our interview with “Bionic Girl” Tilly Lockey!

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