Shouldn't we use "the" with "first"? "the first prize"?

I congratulated Sam on winning first prize in the competition.

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"First prize" is not the same as "the first prize".

"First prize" is the highest award. For example, in the Olympics, a gold medal is "first prize".

However, often "first prize" is not the first prize to be awarded. Prize winners are often announced in reverse order. For example, 3rd prize will be announced, then 2nd prize, then 1st prize. In that case, 3rd prize is "the first prize announced", but it's not "first prize".

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    This answer is correct. To add a little clarification using the Olympics example, "the first prize" at the Olympics would refer to the first medal awarded. The very first event in the games would award "the first prize." But, as @MattCline stated, "first prize" refers to the gold medal in any given event. – Stephen C Mar 9 '17 at 2:18

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