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There was a race to the top* for the best nuke between the U.S. and Russia.

It seems there's no right way to say it. The idiom "race to the bottom" exists and is widely used, but there's no equivalent for top and it just sounds weird and unidiomatic.

Is there any equivalent expression?

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"Race to the top" is in occasional use, see this wiktionary entry and this Obama-era education program. It's not as common as "race to the bottom" because it's a little bit conceptually redundant--people in races normally want to come out on top.

Your sentence would be fine as "there was a race between U.S. and Russia for the best nuke."

You could also talk about competition between the two nations "spurring" or "incentivizing" nuclear research and development.

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There was a nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia.

Arms race by definition strives for superiority in technology (making for the best nuke(s) unnecessary), nuclear emphasises that the competition concerns development/production of nuclear weapons.

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