In the end, after more than three kilometres of running in the men’s 4x800m final, it all boiled down to a sprint – a head-to-head duel between the athletes who finished third and fifth in the Olympic final last year: Clayton Murphy of the US and Ferguson Rotich of Kenya.
Once again, as in Rio, it was the US runner who proved the stronger, Murphy blasting past Rotich halfway down the home straight to take victory in 7:13.16.
"It was awesome," he said afterwards, and it was.
From early in the race, it was clear the two middle-distance superpowers would settle the fight for gold between them. Brannon Kidder of the US led through the first half mile, but the advantage was only a slender one when he handed over to teammate Erik Sowinski.
"We knew we had the best anchor," said Sowinski, "so we just tried to keep it close for him so he could bring home the gold."
Kipyegon Bett powered away from Sowinski down the home straight towards the end of the second leg, giving Kenya a 10-metre advantage at halfway, but that was steadily eaten away on the third leg by Casimir Loxsom, who reeled in Kenya’s Timothy Kitum over the ensuing lap.
Loxsom forged his way past towards the end of his leg, but rather than take the lead at the start of the final leg, Clayton Murphy made a canny – and ultimately correct – decision to back off, allowing Kenya’s Ferguson Rotich to assume the pace-making duties.
Further back, the tussle for bronze was heating up with Poland, Australia and Mexico all in contention as they set out on the final leg.
At the front, Murphy settled into a relaxed rhythm with the nonchalant air of a man who knew he held the trump card; it was just a matter of when he would choose to play it.
Rotich, though, was no guinea pig out front.
Instead of pushing the pace, he settled into a relaxed rhythm, knowing all too well the assault he would face when they turned for home. He gradually shifted through the gears up the back straight, but had to hit full throttle on the final bend as Murphy moved wide and began to launch his kick.
Rotich, though, was ready for it and was able to fend him off until halfway down the home straight, at which point Murphy’s class began to tell, the world leader battling his way past to claim gold.
Kenya took second in 7:13.70, with Poland, anchored by the ever-reliable Marcin Lewandowski, coming home third in 7:18.74, well clear of Australia (7:20.10) and Mexico (7:20.92).
"We came well prepared but it wasn't enough to win," said Alfred Kipketer. "We had new names on the team this time around but I am confident in our 800m runners. We will do well this season."
The biggest cheer of the race, however, was not for any of the medallists, but reserved for the four athletes from South Sudan who comprised the Athletes Refugee Team – Gai Nyang, Paulo Amotun Lokoro, Wiyual Puok Deng and Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu – who came home seventh in 8:12.57.
It wasn’t just the fans, but their fellow competitors too, who stood in appreciation as Lokinyomo approached the finish, all those present in the Thomas A Robinson Stadium offering them warm and well-deserved applause.
"We've never run in this type of relay before so it was all new," said Amotun. "We didn't run that well, but with this experience, we will go home and keep working and everything will be good."
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF