By NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE
Saturday, February 17, 2018
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- First they called him Iron Man. Now they're calling him the Emperor.
When South Korea's Yun Sungbin roared his way at 125 kilometres an hour to a No. 1 finish in skeleton at the Pyeongchang Games, he not only doubled his country's gold-medal count. He also took home a series of other firsts: first South Korean gold medal outside skating; first Asian medal-winner in an Olympic sliding sport; fastest man ever down the slick ice at Pyeongchang Games Olympic Sliding Centre.
His final time beat secondplace Russian Nikita Tregubov by 1.63 seconds, a practical eternity.
Not in 46 years has someone won an Olympic sliding race by so wide a margin.
It was as if the Cool Runnings bobsledders had not just made it to the Olympics, but also leapt to the top of the podium.
South Koreans heralded him as the newest athlete to take on, then conquer, a "wasteland sport" and win. The last person to do that, figure skater Kim Yuna, remains a national icon years after she hung up her skates. On social media, Yun was crowned "Skeleton Emperor" and "Emperor for a Decade." His victory was declared a "gift to the nation" on seolnal, the lunar new year celebrated on Friday.
"Getting the gold medal in any Olympics is a very great result, but getting the gold here in my home country is a very great honour, much bigger than that," Yun said after his win, sliding in the Iron Man-design helmet that has made him famous.
For fans held in thrall by the 25-inch thighs on this "skeleton monster," there was hope that maybe the 23-year-old's victory marked the start of something else, too. Maybe, South Koreans hope, he "could be the first in a new era of Korean sports history," said Shim Chankoo, chief executive of Sportizen, a Seoul-based sports-marketing and consulting company.
"Skeleton, this sport is at its beginning. I'm happy that we started so well and for the future, I will do my best so that we continue to do well," Yun said on Friday.
There was, of course, a more prosaic reason undergirding his success: like any host country, South Korea poured money into medal success. The Pyeongchang sliding course is only the second in Asia, after Nagano. And South Korea settled on Yun early to win a medal, supporting him enough that rivals from lesser-funded programs could only marvel.
Skeleton is "like Formula One, we are talking about hundredths" of a second, Spanish competitor Ander Mirambell said. "You must have a good sled, a good technician. If you see the Korean guy, he has the best material."
Yun did not start sliding until high school, when a teacher noticed his natural athletic ability.
In 100-metre races, he would ask to start 10 metres back from others his age and still beat them.
Despite being 5-foot8, he could grab a basketball rim with ease.
Fellow athletes now laud his athletic "genius."
He had, however, never heard of skeleton when his teacher recommended he try it and his first overseas practice session terrified him. "He called his mother and cried to her that 'he couldn't do skeleton,' " his high-school teacher, Kim Young-tae, told Ohmynews, a local news outlet.
"He said he was in pain and it was so hard," his mother, Cho Young-hee, told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
But Yun proved both committed to the sport and extraordinarily gifted, finishing 16th in Sochi before rising to second in the world rankings by the 2015-16 season.
National investment helped, too.
"Korea wanted to focus on some sports where we could get medals in the 2018 Olympics," Shim said. "Skeleton was one in which the home track is relatively favourable to home athletes, and there is less competition owing to the smaller number of athletes in the world."
That program, however, has struggled to match its ambition.
South Korea envisions a fourthplace Pyeongchang Olympics medals ranking, but currently stands in 10th, with two golds and a bronze. Outside hockey, the number of local registered athletes in Winter Olympic sports is actually declining.
Still, Yun's sliding on Friday caught the country up in a moment of national euphoria.
Television networks broadcast live every one of Yun's moves, from sharpening the blades on his sled to his elated bow, head touching the ground, after winning. Hours after the win, TV screens were still filled with replays.
Among those watching was Chun Lee-kyung, a four-time short-track speed skating goldmedal winner for South Korea - herself a pioneer in the country's winter sports.
Yun's performance gave her "goosebumps," she said.
South Korean winters, she said, will, from now on, have "a lot more kids sledding down hills.
And the sliding centre, which was made to host the Olympic Games, will play a big role in the future of sledding events."
Yun "made a miracle, but this is not over. It's only just starting."
WITH REPORTS BY CYNTHIA YOO
South Korea's Yun Sung-bin starts his final side on the way to winning the gold medal in the men's skeleton at Olympic Sliding Centre in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday. The gold is a first for South Korean winter athletes outside of skating.
QUINN ROONEY/GETTY IMAGES