PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - The coronation of South Korea’s skeleton emperor Yun Sung-bin was staged with thousands of cheering fans who braved the cold to watch their new Olympic hero receive his gold medal on Friday.
Yun, clad in a long white padded coat and blue-knit hat, greeted the crowd with a smile.
South Korea’s queen of winter sports, retired figure skater Kim Yuna, was earlier among the fans at the Pyeongchang 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 men’s skeleton.
He also became the first athlete from outside Europe or North America to win an Olympic medal in a sliding event, writing his name in the history books on South Korea’s Lunar New Year holiday.
“I can’t find any better way to describe him than as skeleton emperor,” said Kim Young-soon, a 40-year-old housewife who was at the medal ceremony with her two children.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a congratulatory message to Yun via Twitter.
“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,” Moon wrote. “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, sparking 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 100km 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 16kg to ensure he was a contender.
By coinciding with the Lunar New Year holiday, Yun ensured a big television audience. Many people tuned in after traveling back to their home towns and paying respect to their ancestors by preparing a feast and making a deep bow.
Yun bowed before the crowd after his victory.
“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 and Ed Osmond