In the space of less than three-and-a-half minutes at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the Republic of Korea’s Yun Sung-bin became Asia’s first gold medallist in the skeleton, sold his sport to a previously unheeding nation and propelled himself to the status of sporting royalty.
Yun’s face, and his trademark Iron Man helmet, had seemed to be everywhere in the months leading up to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, as he embodied the hosts’ prime hope for a gold medal, outside their traditional stronghold in the short track skating arena.
The 23-year-old lived up to the hype. At the Alpensia Sliding Centre over two days in February, he put in four astonishingly quick runs for a cumulative time of 3 minutes 20.55 seconds, eventually beating Nikita Tregubov, the Olympic Athlete from Russia, by nearly two seconds – a whopping margin in skeleton terms.
The gratitude of his homeland reached such levels that he was dubbed “Emperor”. Now he is among the most popular athletes in Rep. Korea and his sport is booming among a focusing on a repeat at Beijing 2022.
“PyeongChang was my everything,” he said. “Becoming a member of Team Korea population that knew little about it before PyeongChang. Aged 25, he is building on his success and at the Olympics was the biggest reason for me to start skeleton. It was the opportunity of my life. I was so desperate for it, and that helped me to endure all the hard times and training.
“After the Olympics, more people recognised me, praised me and supported me. People began to call me ‘Emperor’. And I want to be an athlete who consistently excels, like an emperor.”
Yun grew up in Namhae, a city on Korea’s south coast, where his physical education teacher suggested he take up sliding sports after PyeongChang was awarded the Games in 2011.
“I didn’t know much about skeleton, and neither did people around me. At first sight, I thought it would be thrilling, similar to riding a rollercoaster. However, on my first ride, I realised that going down the track at over 100 kph could never be easy.”
Despite the surprise, he took well to his new sport and began winning medals in 2013 – his first was a bronze at the North American Cup in Park City, Utah. But travelling was tough for the youngster, who suffered from homesickness.
“At first, I was excited to go abroad,” he said. “However, spending months away from home was difficult. The language was also a barrier. But when I won my first World Cup medal in 2014 in Calgary, I was excited. I started to think about how to remain in this position. Before the medal, it was all about medals. After the medal, different goals started to appear. In the seasons before the Olympics, I performed well, and expected good results in PyeongChang.”
Staying calm was the key to his consistent runs in 2018, he believes. “I did not give special meaning to the Olympic Games, and approached the runs the same I do at any competition. I was in good shape. I just had to put in my best performance. Competing on my home track also made me more mentally stable. Thinking too much about mistakes interferes with sliding.”
His success, and the construction of a top-class track for the Games, means that skeleton, along with bobsleigh and luge, are now growing in popularity in Rep. Korea. “It took a long time, but skeleton is now known in Korea. I am grateful for drawing more attention to skeleton than before, and I want to inspire those who dream of doing skeleton. I will think of the PyeongChang Olympics for the rest of my life.”
In the meantime, Yun is turning his thoughts to the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. “I exercise five to six hours a day, doing weights and many types of sessions. I had a lot of trial and error before PyeongChang, and I now know more about how to get ready for the Olympics.”
There is obviously a lot more to come from Rep. Korea’s Iron Man, who still identifies with the superhero on his helmet: like Yun, he is man and machine working in perfect harmony. “Other heroes are created by an unknown force but I especially like Iron Man because he is a hero born of his own capacity.
“On a skeleton track, there is always a section that goes around a big curve, and one day I was watching athletes going around the curve and recalled Iron Man as he flew in the sky. So I made the Iron Man helmet.” It is a sight his opponents will fear as 2022 approaches.