It’s not a spectator sport. Skeleton, like luge and bobsleigh, are viewed live from stands where you can catch a glimpse of a person very low to the ice whiz by you at 125 kilometers per hour.
To get a crowd to pack the stands at a skeleton event, particularly at these PyeongChang Olympics where no Asian has ever won a sliding event, you need a hero. And South Korea has one – Iron Man!
Yun Sung-Bin of Namhae, South Korea, a relative unknown outside sliding circles, even in his own country, was actually the favorite in the men’s skeleton event. He took the first of four heats with a top speed of 50.28 seconds, in his now famous Iron Man helmet. And when he set the course record at 50.07 seconds in his second heat, a superhero origin story was being scripted.
In a sport where you race on your belly face forward down a sliding track negotiating 16 curves at high speeds on a low-tech sled without brakes or steering, the skeleton athlete navigates this hard and icy course with a turn of your head, and a dip of your toe in the ice, working your core muscles and shifting your weight beyond the visible ken of the spectator in order to stay central and not allowing centrifugal force to send you flying off the curve.
Scouted late in his student career, Yun was persuaded to try skeleton when he was 18, which he found so terrifying that he called his mother in tears saying he didn’t want to do skeleton anymore. What his mother and other family members said to him is not clear in this article, but they got Yun to get back on the sled and slide.
Since then, Yun has been a rising star. In fact, Yun is world #1, having won the overall 2017-2018 World Cup, the first ever from Asia. So Yun was certainly the favorite to win gold. But because skeleton is not so well known generally, and because short track skating and speed skating get over-weighted attention in South Korea, Iron Man still flew under the radar.
But when he lined up for his fourth and final run, Iron Man was top of mind in South Korea. It was February 16, the first day of the annual lunar New Year holiday season, a time of family. So 7,000 filled the spectator areas along the 1,376.4 meter track, giving nary a thought to the -2 degree Centrigrade temperature.
Because Iron Man was in the house, and he was hot.
On his fourth run, Yun was primed for victory. At the end of Heat 3, he had a 1.02 second lead on Martins Dukurs of Latvia. As I understand it, a second advantage in skeleton is huge. For example, at that stage, Dukurs led Dom Parsons of Great Britain by .04 seconds, and Parsons led Nikita Tregubov by only .03 seconds. Clearly those subtle flexing of abdominal muscles and gluteus maximus make a difference.
But there was nothing subtle about Yun’s final run. He blasted through the start, already increasing his lead as he approached the first curve, and finishing by re-setting the course record at 50.02 seconds, and winning the gold medal over Tregubov by a margin of 1.63 seconds.
Here’s the excited call of the NBC announcer:
He’s powering ahead. There’s only one thing that will stop him. It’s curve nine. He’ll have to do a little bit of work…but he makes it straight through! Ah, the pressure! He’s carrying it so well! Around 15! He’s home now! He’s done it! He’s done it! South Korean supremacy – Sung-Bin style! Yun Sung-Bin wins the greatest gold of all! Host nation gold in PyeongChang!