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Not all silver medals are created equal

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Here’s one indisputable takeaway from the scintillating men’s and women’s 400-meter hurdles finals the past two nights: Not all silver medals are created equal.

On Tuesday, America’s Rai Benjamin obliterated the men’s 400 hurdles world record by more than half a second … and couldn’t quite chase down Norway's indomitable Karsten Warholm.

On Wednesday, Dalilah Muhammad eclipsed the women’s 400 hurdles world record by three-tenths of a second … only to get caught from behind by fellow American Sydney McLaughlin.

The silver medals that Benjamin and Muhammad received may look identical to others awarded at the Tokyo Olympics, but they don’t feel the same. This wasn’t China failing to win gold in an Olympic table tennis competition for the first time since 2004. Or a Dutch cyclist mistakenly thinking she had won the women’s road race, only to later realize another rider was up the road. Benjamin and Muhammad executed their race plans perfectly and squeezed everything they could out of their bodies yet were beaten by superior performances.

Of course, Benjamin and Muhammad aren’t the only second-place finishers in Tokyo with plenty to celebrate. Here’s a list of the 10 best silver medals from the first 12 days of the Olympics:

10. Rayssa Leal

Six years ago, Tony Hawk shared a video of a young Brazilian girl in a blue fairy costume landing a heelflip. Now that young Brazilian girl in the viral video has an Instagram following of 6.5 million and an Olympic silver medal. Rayssa Leal, 13, became the youngest medalist in 85 years when she took second place at the first-ever Olympic women's street skateboarding event. Leal’s age was the norm on the podium rather than an anomaly. The trio of medalists in the event were 13, 13 and 16, meaning that Facebook, "Napoleon Dynamite" and Usher's "Yeah!" are older than all of them.

9. Christine Mboma

Turns out Mboma’s medal hopes weren’t dead in early July when tests revealed that her natural testosterone levels were above the allowed limit for 400 meters runners. Barred from competing in her signature event at the Olympics, the 18-year-old Namibian reinvented herself as a 200 meters specialist in a span of just a few weeks. Mboma lowered her personal best in all three rounds of the 200 and shattered the U20 world record. In a star-studded final on Tuesday night, Mboma couldn’t chase down Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah, but she roared past three world-class runners down the stretch to finish second and claim her country’s first medal in a quarter century.

8. Sweden or Canada women’s soccer

The winner of Thursday's Canada-Sweden women’s soccer match will claim their country’s first gold medal in the sport. The loser will still have a lot to be proud of even if their Olympics will have ended on a disappointing note. Sweden, in particular, has been dominant, winning all five of its matches by a 13-3 total margin including a 3-0 demolition of the revenge-minded U.S. in the opener for both teams. Canada has a pair of draws and a victory in penalty kicks on its resume, but they came up big when it mattered. The Canadians at long last earned a measure of North American bragging rights, ousting the favored Americans from the tournament in the semifinals.

7. Polina Guryeva

Polina Guryeva needed eight words to sum up her achievement after claiming a silver medal in the 59-kilogram category of the weightlifting competition. “I think I’ve entered the history of Turkmenistan,” she said. Guryeva captured the isolated, sparsely populated Central Asian country’s first Olympic medal of any color since independence from the Soviet Union. She lifted a total 217 kilograms, edging Mikiko Andoh of Japan for second place but finishing well back of Kuo Hsing-Chun of Taiwan. Kuo won gold by lifting 236kg.

Mykayla Skinner's silver medal means a ton to her considering the circumstances. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
Mykayla Skinner's silver medal means a ton to her considering the circumstances. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

6. MyKayla Skinner

MyKayla Skinner thought her Olympics were over after the opening night of gymnastics. Despite qualifying fourth overall in the vault, she was third amongst her American teammates, which rendered her ineligible for the individual final due to the sport’s two-gymnast-per-country rule.

The silver lining to Simone Biles’ subsequent withdrawal is that it gave Skinner a second chance. Seizing her last opportunity for an individual medal, Skinner won silver on vault, behind only Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, who edged the 24-year-old American 15.083 to 14.916.

5. U.S. 4x200-meter freestyle relay

Buried deep in third place after the first three legs of the relay, the U.S. clung to a time-honored swimming truth: You always have a chance when Katie Ledecky is your anchor leg. Ledecky unleashed the strongest freestyle stroke in her sport at full throttle, dragging the U.S. back into contention in a race that appeared lost before she dove in the water. Ledecky passed Australia’s Leah Neale and nearly chased down China's Li Bingjie, but the Chinese held on for a narrow victory. All three medal winners clocked times faster than the previous world record. Ledecky swam the fastest split of any of the 32 swimmers in the race.

4. Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky was no match for Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in the 200 freestyle. The Aussie couldn’t quite stay with Ledecky in the 800 freestyle. The 400 was the most evenly matched race between swimming’s two superstars, and it lived up to the hype. While Titmus dramatically overtook her American rival late in the race, Ledecky’s silver medal-winning swim served as an early sign that she was in good form. Titmus dethroned Ledecky in 3:56.69. Ledecky claimed second in 3:57.36. Not only were both times two of the four fastest of all time, third-place Li Bingjie of China finished nearly four seconds behind both of them.

3. U.S. women’s gymnastics

Many media outlets got it wrong with headlines suggesting that the U.S. women’s gymnastics team settled for silver in last week’s team competition. In reality, the Americans salvaged silver after Simone Biles put them in a hole on the scoreboard with a botched vault, then withdrew from the rest of the competition. Spurred by a pep talk from Biles, the “other” members of the team refocused and chipped away at the lead of the Russian Olympic Committee as best they could. Suni Lee was especially unflappable on the bars and the floor exercise, foreshadowing her individual gold in the all-around competition two nights later.

2. Dalilah Muhammad

It’s a testament to McLaughlin and Muhammad that no one was surprised to see both of them bettering the existing world record in the Olympic final. They’ve been trading the record back and forth each time they face off. Muhammad, the 2016 Olympic champion, first broke the record at USA Nationals in 2019 and lowered it again later that summer at the World Championships in Doha. McLaughlin became the first 400 hurdler to crack 52 seconds at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June. Then she ran 51.46 seconds on Wednesday to edge Muhammad at the finish line.

1. Rai Benjamin

Just how fast was Tuesday’s men’s 400 hurdles final? Warholm’s winning time of 45.94 seconds lowered the world record he set in July by more than three-quarters of a second. Alison Dos Santos of Brazil ran two hundredths of a second shy of that previous record and settled for bronze. Fourth and fifth place in the race missed medals despite running the fifth- and sixth-fastest Olympic times ever. Benjamin told Reuters after the race: "I saw the 45.9 and I was like, 'What the hell?' And I saw 46.1 and was like, 'There's no way I really ran 46 and lost.’"

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 13 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 13 slideshow embed

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