There's a 4th Kind of Olympic Medal and Only a Few People Have It

Yes, there's something better than gold.

Winning an Olympic medal of any metal is no small feat. Even after receiving #23 in Rio, Michael Phelps shed a few tears (opens in new tab). But his unprecedented achievement still falls short of an even rarer Olympic award.

Named after the founder of the modern Olympics, the Pierre de Coubertin medal honors athletes who exemplify the spirit of sportsmanship or exceptional service to the Games. The International Olympic Committee has only given out a dozen or so, and it remains one of the most prestigious awards in all of sports.

Among the more famous recipients is Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima (pictured above). The Brazilian marathoner lost his lead at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens when a crazed spectator jumped out of the crowd, tackling him. de Lima later finished third, saying, "It's bronze but means gold." His grace earned him the de Coubertin medal and the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron this year in his home country.

Another notable story involves Jesse Owens at the controversial 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. While it's been disputed (opens in new tab), German rival Luz Long helped the American qualify for the long jump, advising him where to place his foot. Owens then won gold in the finals, and the athletes made a powerful statement by embracing in front of Adolf Hitler. They remained friends through World War II, and Long received the award posthumously in 1964.

Other winners of the de Coubertin medal have given their own equipment to competitors (opens in new tab), and even saved another team from drowning (opens in new tab).

While these inspiring moments don't happen every day, there's definitely a few athletes in Rio who are worthy of extra recognition.

Yusra Mardini (opens in new tab), an 18-year-old Syrian refugee, earned her place as an Olympic swimmer after saving 20 people in a dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea. Dutch equestrian Adelinde Cornelissen (opens in new tab) dropped out of the dressage event to protect her horse. And let's not forget Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhi (opens in new tab), who broke cultural taboos by discussing her period on national television. "I feel I didn't swim well today — I let my teammates down," she said. "My period came last night and I'm really tired right now. But this isn't an excuse, I still didn't swim as well as I should have."

Most recently, the United States' Abbey D'Agostino and New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin (opens in new tab) helped each other finish the women's 5,000-meter race qualifier after a devastating collision. While the de Coubertin medal isn't awarded every Olympics, this inspiring duo definitely deserves consideration.

[h/t Mental Floss (opens in new tab)

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