February 16, 2018 / 8:33 AM / a year ago

Olympics-Skeleton-South Korea crowns new winter hero: the Iron Man

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea, Feb 16 (Reuters) - South Korea's queen of winter sports, retired figure skating icon Kim Yuna, was on hand to watch fans crown the nation's new Olympic hero on Friday: gold-medal skeleton racer Yun Sung-bin.

Kim was among hundreds of home fans at the Pyeongchang winter Games who cheered as Yun, with his trademark "Iron Man" helmet, shot like a bullet along the ice to become South Korea's first Olympic champion in the men's skeleton.

He also became the first athlete outside Europe or North America to win an Olympic medal in a sliding event, writing himself into the history books on South Korea's Lunar New Year holiday.

"He is a new star. He's so good and I have high hopes for him," said Lee Sun-woo, a 21-year-old student who was rooting for Yun with her friend at the Games sliding centre.

"I'm very proud to see our South Korean athlete excelling at skeleton. This has been an unpopular sport in South Korea."

South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a congratulatory message to Yun via his office's Twitter account, using one of the athlete's nicknames, the "skeleton emperor".

"It became the best Lunar New Year's gift to our people. Yun showed to us that we can be the best in the world if we try and dare to challenge a new field.

"Thank you skeleton emperor Yun Sung-bin."

South Korea has long been a powerhouse in short-track speed skating, and "Queen" Kim won the country's first figure skating gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, spurring more local interest in winter sports.

Skeleton racing, though, is one of the most extreme sports: competitors hurtle head-first and face-down at speeds of more than 100 km per hour (60 miles per hour) down a twisting ice track, their chins hovering a few inches from the surface.

Yun, 23, knows every bump and curve of the Pyeongchang track, having spent thousands of hours training on it. But that wasn't enough: he also had to put on weight to gain more speed.

After winning gold, he described how he had eaten eight meals a day to gain up to 16 kg to ensure he was a contender.

By coinciding with the Lunar New Year holiday, Yun ensured a big television audience. Many people will have tuned in after traveling back to their home towns and paying respect to their ancestors by preparing a feast and making a deep bow.

After his win, Yun bowed before the crowd.

"I feel good to hear from people cheering me that way, I haven't come this far just to get that title," said Yun, known more commonly at home as the "Iron Man" for his love of the Marvel super hero character.

"And my biggest wish is that this interest and support not fade out after the Olympics but could lead to finding new talents." (Editing by Mark Bendeich)

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