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By Mitch Phillips
TOKYO (Reuters) - World Athletics president Sebastian Coe is looking forward to some "sumptuous head to heads" when the Olympic athletics programme gets underway on Friday and said this edition could go down as one of the strongest competitions of any Games.
Coe was speaking at a news conference as officials put the finishing touches to the Olympic Stadium, where 2,038 athletes from 196 countries will compete in 55 hours of competition across 19 sessions.
"This, of all times, is a championship for all athletes - they have been through a really tough 18 months," Coe said.
"Our target was to get them back into training and we needed to get competition up and running as soon as we could. I'd like to thank my own federation, the local organising committee, the HQ team and the athletes themselves, who have shown bucketloads of fortitude and resilience.
"We have recently seen some extraordinary performances and this may go down as one of the strongest competitions of any Olympics."
Among them are both the one-lap hurdles races, where the world record has been broken in each this year.
On the women's side, 21-year-old Sydney McLaughlin set the new mark, edging ahead of American compatriot and defending champion Dalilah Muhammad, while Femke Bol of the Netherlands could also be in the mix in a potentially superb race.
Norway's Karsten Warholm is the new owner of the men's world record, overhauling Kevin Young's 29-year-old mark a month ago, but he too faces a red-hot challenger in the shape of Rai Benjamin, who went within a whisker of Young's mark at the U.S. trials in June.
"I have always been a great believer that our sport isn’t just judged by times, distance and heights but by indelible memories and I think we can look forward to some sumptuous head to heads," Coe said.
"I have no idea if we will see any world records but I would say there is potential in the head to heads, maybe the 400m hurdles - and it's a long time since we’ve talked about those being the notable races."
Coe said 99 countries have won Olympic medals in athletics and identified Kenyan-turned Israeli distance runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, Peruvian race walker Kimberly Garcia and triple jumper Hugues Fabrice Zango from Burkina Faso as potentially capable of making it 100.
"It’s a very good place for our sport to be and shows the strength in depth of national engagement," Coe said.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)