Skeleton - Winter Olympics Day 7
Sungbin Yun of Korea celebrates winning the Men’s Skeleton in Pyeongchang, South Koreaon Feb. 16, 2018. Richard Heathcote—Getty Images

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.

Yun Sung-Bin in his Iron Man helmet

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!

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Most of us think about the luge and skeleton competitions once every four years during the Winter Olympics, if at all. Regardless, watching these competitions will get the tension up for anyone. Sliding down an icy curvy course at speeds of over 130 kph without breaks, with very little to protect you looks crazy dangerous….thus the thrill.

Just in case you’re interested, there are a few significant differences between two sliding events that seem similar to the untrained eye: the luge and the skeleton. The most obvious difference is that luge competitors race down the sliding course feet first, face looking to the sky, while skeleton competitors zip down the course head first. Here are a few more:

skeleton sled vs luge sled
skeleton sled top, luge sled below

Runners: Luges have razor-sharp blades for runners while skeleton sleds have metal tubes for runners.

Starting Point: Luges for individual competitors (as well as bobsleigh) start higher up the course than skeleton (although women at a lower point than men)

Starting Method: Luge competitors start from a sitting position, pushing off from the starting point with their hands, while skeleton competitors sprint at the start like bobsleigh teams, running for about 40 meters, admittedly somewhat awkwardly as the sled is very low to the ground.

Steering: Lugers on their backs with their feet at the front and so the way the luge is designed is for the luger to steer with their legs, pushing down on the left “kufen,” the hook-shaped part of the runner, for example. The challenge is steering without being able to see. Skeleton competitors can see very clearly, and since they are nestled in a “saddle” attached to the skeleton sled, they can steer more easily than lugers with subtle shifts in body weight can alter the direction of the sled.

Speed: All factors being considered, lugers are able to hit faster speeds than skeleton competitors. Lugers start higher up the course, and their feet-first approach is more aerodynamic than the head-first approach of skeleton sliders. Clearly, a round helmet creates greater air resistance than two feet pointed straight ahead. According to the science guy, Bill Nye, “so serious are luge sliders about drag, the soles of their shoes have no tread, and the heels are permanently set to keep them walking on tiptoes to the starting gate.” As a result lugers can hit speeds of 145 to 150 kph, while skeleton sliders max out at around 130 kph.

Akwasi Frimpong

He slept on the ground of his crowded home as a child, his grandmother working hard to get food on the table for nine grandchildren. Akwasi Frimpong grew up in a village called Kumasi in the Republic of Ghana, and while he aspired to a better life, he probably had no thought of becoming an Olympian in the speed sliding sport of skeleton.

Skeleton Olympic champions have emerged from only 8 countries in the world, including the US, Great Britain, Canada, Russia and Switzerland. Certainly, running full speed into an icy track of twists and turns, head first on a tiny sled, is not the first thing 99.99999% of the world’s population would try to do, let alone think, particularly in a country where the coldest it gets is about19 degrees Celsius.

And yet Frimpong defied the considerable odds, and has put himself in a position to become Ghana’s first ever Winter Olympian representing his country at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics in the skeleton competition. To become an Olympian, he has to qualify at the skeleton world cup in mid-January of 2018 by getting into the Top 60 in the world. If he does, he’s going to South Korea.

Perhaps Frimpong’s first big break was leaving Ghana at the age of 8, and move to the Netherlands where his mother had emigrated to. In a more developed economy with more opportunities, Frimpong was shaped by his coach at his junior high school into a track star.

His second big break was having Sammy Monsels as his junior high school coach, a man who competed as a sprinter at the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympics. According to this article on Olympic.org, Monsels created a vision for Frimpong.

“It was Sammy who really instilled the dream of the Olympics in me. Within two months, I went to the Dutch Junior Indoor Championships and missed out on the 60m final by 0.01 seconds. That summer, I missed out on the 100m final, again by 0.01 seconds… I asked my coach what I needed to do to become a gold medalist. He spoke to me about self-discipline and it all started from there.

Frimpong went on to become the 200 meter Dutch junior champion. But because he was still an illegal alien, he could not benefit from any international competition. What if immigration would not let him back into the country? Competing overseas was too big a risk. And his illegal status stopped him from asking to enter any high school. Fortunately, there existed an institution that looked beyond Frimpong’s legal status – the Johan Cruyff Institute. Named after Holland’s (and the world’s) most famous soccer player, Johan Cruyff, this school is designed to develop the abilities of students, athletes as well as business professionals.

Frimpong’s third break was to have a neighbor who cared. The neighbor was a writer, and she wrote so persuasively, even explaining Frimpong’s illegal status, that the Johan Cruyff College took a chance on the Ghanaian. Frimpong enter the school and earned his school’s international student of the year award. The award was to be presented in Barcelona, Spain, but because Frimpong was too scared to leave the country, Johan Cruyff himself flew to Holland just to present the award to Frimpong.

Eventually, in 2008, at the age of 22, Frimpong became a Dutch citizen. He got an athletic scholarship to study in America at Utah Valley University, and dreamed of making the Netherlands track team for the 2012 London Games. But he was not able to qualify, hampered by an injury.

Entering the second half of his 20s, his dreams of running track in the Olympics was fading. But he got a visit from the Dutch bobsleigh team, and was asked to try out as their brakeman for a World Cup race in Utah. Frimpong showed enough promise that he progressed to make the Netherlands national bobsleigh team. Unfortunately, his results were just under the cut, and Frimpong missed out on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

At the age of 28, failing to make both a Summer Olympics and a Winter Olympics, Frimpong could have ended his pursuit of an Olympic Games. And that’s when he discovered skeleton. And for some reason, this sport clicked.

I set myself the goal of becoming the first African to win a medal in Winter Olympic history. I knew it would take me four to six years to become really good, so initially my target was the 2022 Games. But when I started racing in 2016, I surprised myself. A lot of coaches said that I was sliding like someone who had been doing the sport for several years.

And so Frimpong is at the door of his long journey to make the Olympics. If he does qualify for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, he will be first black skeleton athlete in Olympic history.

 

Note on February 2, 2018: On January 15, 2018, he got his wish and is headed for the Olympics.

Alexander Zubkov (L) and Alexey Voyevoda
Alexander Zubkov (L) and Alexey Voyevoda of Russia team 1 celebrate on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s Two-Man Bobsleigh on day ten of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Medals Plaza on February 18, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Unfortunately for Voyevoda, Zubkov was DQ’ed.

After finishing 11th in the medal standings at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, with a total of only 15 medals and 3 gold medals, Russia made a commitment to do better in their home country for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In fact, Russia, finished at the top of the medal table with 33 total medals, including 13 gold medals.

Flash forward to 2017, and the table has turned.

After a review of the McLaren report on Russian state-sponsored doping prior to the Sochi Games, the IOC on December 5, 2017, banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from its participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. This decision means that no official team can represent Russia, but individuals from Russia can apply to participate in PyoengChang as a member of the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR), assuming it can be shown they were not part of the Russian doping machine.

As you can see in these tables from an NBC Sports article, Russia has suddenly plummeted in the Sochi medal tables from first to fifth. In the current standings, the USA is at the top of the overall medal count at 28, while Norway takes the lead in gold medals with 11.

Sochi Medal Rankings Top Five

This may not be the final revision. The IOC could decide to move other competitors up the medal ranks to replace the disqualified athletes. While the possible revisions below are dramatic, they actually would not have any further impact on the top five standings, although Latvia would move up from 23rd overall to 20th, thanks to the addition of 2 bronze medals.

  • Biathlon (women’s sprint): Russian silver medalist, Olga Vilukhina, was disqualified. Vita Semerenko of the Ukraine and Karin Oberhofer of Italy could move up to silver and bronze.
  • Biathlon (women’s relay): Members of the silver-medal winning Russian team, Olga Vilukhina, Yana Romanova and Olga Zaitseva, were disqualified. Norway could move up to silver, Czech Republic to Bronze.
  • Bobsleigh (two-man): Alexandr Zubkov was disqualified and stripped of his gold medal, which was unfortunate for his teammate Alexey Voyevoda, who was not disqualified. In this case, Switzerland could move up to gold, while the US could end up with a silver. Latvia might win bronze in this case.
  • Bobsleigh (four-man): As three of the four members of the Russian bobsleigh team, Alexandr Zubkov, Alexey Negodaylo and Dmitry Trunenkov, were disqualified, again Voyevoda appears to get stripped of his gold without being disqualified. Latvia and the US could move up to gold and silver. Another Russia team could have taken bronze, but they also had disqualified members on the team, which opens up the possibility of fifth place Great Britain taking bronze.
  • Cross-country skiing (men’s 50k freestyle): As written in an earlier post, Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin were disqualified, allowing Russian country man Ilia Chernousov to potentially trade his bronze medal for gold, with Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus moving up to silver and bronze.
  • Cross-country skiing (men’s team sprint): Like the 50k freestyle, Vylegzhanin’s DQ results in the stripping of Russia’s silver medal. Sweden and Norway could move up to silver and bronze.
  • Skeleton (men’s): Gold medalist, Alexander Tretyakov, was disqualified, leaving the door open for Martins Dukurs of Latvia to take gold, and American Matthew Antoine to take silver. Another Latvian, Tomass Dukurs, finished in fourth so is hoping for a medal as well.
  • Skeleton (women’s): Bronze medalist Elena Nikitina was disqualified, opening the door for a new bronze medalist, Katie Uhlaender of the US.
  • Speed skating (women’s 500-meters): Olga Fatkulina, was stripped of her silver medal, which means that Margot Boer of the Netherlands could claim silver, and Zhang Hong of China could be awarded a bronze.