BERLIN (Reuters) - The European Athletics Championships, which kicked off in Berlin on Monday, will be the strongest ever seen and will help bring the good times back to an ailing sport, according to European Athletics president Svein-Arne Hansen.
The 24th edition of the 84-year-old event, which for the first time will come under the umbrella of the new multi-sport European Championships being co-hosted by Glasgow and Berlin, comes with the sport trying to emerge from a grim period.
Yet Hansen, the 72-year-old Norwegian who was the meet director at Oslo's Bislett Games, said the Championships could help restore credibility to a sport damaged by doping problems.
The event features seven reigning Olympic champions, 15 world champions and 34 winners from the last edition in Amsterdam two years ago.
"I think it's the strongest championships we have ever seen," Hansen said.
There will again be no Russian team in Berlin, with their national federation still suspended from international competition over state-sponsored doping even though the IAAF has said they have made "significant" improvement in key areas.
A group of 29 Russians will compete as 'Authorised Neutral Athletes' in Berlin after satisfying International Association of Athletics Federation requirements.
"Athletics in the world is very much coming out of that dark period with Russia," Hansen said.
"We don't want the cheating. The Russian athletes who will be in competition in Berlin are clean."
He believes that Berlin's historic Olympic stadium that hosted a successful world championships in 2009 featuring Jamaica's Usain Bolt in his world record-breaking pomp now has the chance to showcase "new stars" and attractive plotlines.
Among them are the outlandish prospect of Norway's three Ingebrigtsen brothers -- 27-year-old Henrik, Filip (25) and Jakob (17) -- sweeping the medals in the 1,500 meters.
There should be a sprint battle to relish in the women's 100 meters between Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers, bidding for a third successive title, against Britain's brilliant Dina Asher-Smith, the reigning 200m champion.
Norway's world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm will seek the most unlikely double by aiming to win the so-called 'man-killer' event and the 400 meters flat.
The men's 100m could top the bill in the stadium where Jesse Owens and Bolt thrived, featuring a quartet who have dipped under 10 seconds this season -- Britain's Zharnel Hughes, France's Jimmy Vicaut, Italy's Filippo Tortu and Turkey's Jak Ali Harvey.
In Monday's opening qualification session, the main 100m players, already seeded into the semi-finals, were absent as evergreen Dutch reigning champion Churandy Martina, now 34, proved the fastest qualifier by clocking 10.24 seconds.
The most popular sight for the home fans did not come in the Olympic Stadium however but in a temporary arena neighboring the iconic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the city center where the shot put qualification was given a novel setting.
There, Germany's favorite part-time policeman David Storl, who is seeking a fourth consecutive title, became the first automatic qualifier for Tuesday's final, which will be held back in the Olympic Stadium, with his 20.63 meters effort.
There was disappointment for Britain's team captain, former world and European 400m hurdles champion Dai Greene, who had to withdrew before the heats when his hamstring tightened in the warm-up.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband; Editing by Greg Stutchbury and Ken Ferris)