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Host South Korea seeks Olympic sliding breakthrough in skeleton

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Korean skeleton star Yun Sungbin is absolutely obsessed with Iron Man. He collects the figurines. He’s seen the movies. He knows every aspect of the superhero’s story.

Some even call him Iron Man. He may be called Gold Man soon.

South Korea has 26 gold medals in its Winter Olympic history — all on ice, all with skates involved, most from speed skating.

The nation doesn’t have much of a sliding history, but has made great strides as it builds momentum to host the PyeongChang Games.

And Yun is certainly one of the host nation’s top gold hopefuls, looking to parlay his home-track advantage into big things.

“I do believe that if I focus on what I should do, then everything will come out great,” Yun said in early January, according to South Korea’s JoongAng Daily.

He could be right.

Yun was the only slider on the circuit to finish first or second in each of the first six World Cup races this season.

If there’s any pressure on him as he goes into his second Olympics, and obviously his first at home, it’s not showing.

He will face serious competition from the Latvian brother duo of Martins Dukurs and Tomass Dukurs, while Matt Antoine of the United States — a Sochi bronze medalist — has been trying to build his entire season around peaking in PyeongChang.

In women’s skeleton, Great Britain might have a chance at a third straight gold from a third different woman.

Laura Deas will look to carry on her team’s tradition of winning the sport’s biggest race, after Amy Williams in 2010 and Lizzy Yarnold in 2014.

Since skeleton returned to the Olympic program in 2002, a British woman won gold, silver or bronze every time.

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Here’s some of what to know going into skeleton in PyeongChang:

MEDAL FAVORITES
The women’s race could be wide open with no fewer than 10 medal contenders from seven countries. Yun will be the men’s favorite, and since the host South Koreans have far more runs down the track at the Alpensia Sliding Center than anyone else, his familiarity there could be the edge he needs.

WHAT IS IT
No, you may not call it “headfirst luge.” Skeleton sliders go down the track headfirst, on a very different sled than those in the luge world, but can reach speeds exceeding 80 mph (128.74 kph). There’s a sprint at the start as racers hang onto their sled, then they jump aboard and go on a wild ride for the next minute or so.

BEST RIVALRY
Nothing like a sibling rivalry, and in this case, poor Tomass Dukurs. The Latvian is one of the sport’s very best sliders right now, but is also second-best in his own family. His brother Martins Dukurs finishes ahead of him more than 90 percent of the time when they’ve both been entered in the same international competition.

RISING STARS
The future of women’s skeleton is clear. Germany’s Jacqueline Loelling is 22, Canada’s Elisabeth Vathje is 23, and they have been consistently better than everyone else this season. This could be the start of a real Olympic rivalry.

RULE CHANGES
A World Cup has two heats on one day; an Olympic competition has four heats over two days.

DEFENDING SOMETHING
These are strange times in the Olympic world because of the still-developing fallout from the doping scandal that ensnared the host Russians at Sochi 2014, one that led to many medals getting stripped — but not yet reallocated.

So Martins Dukurs, who finished second in 2014, may go to PyeongChang and still not know if he’s the defending gold medalist in his event.

Katie Uhlaender, the hard-luck American veteran who has spent half her life chasing an Olympic medal, might be getting one because she finished fourth behind a since-banned Russian in Sochi four years ago. “I have to focus on what I can control, and I have to focus on myself,” Uhlaender said.

DON’T MISS
Dave Greszczyszyn of Canada is a 38-year-old who once was a teacher and part-time bus driver before deciding to pursue his Olympic skeleton hopes. He’s called Alphabet, for obvious reasons.

OLYMPIAN EFFORT
John Daly of the U.S. will make headlines for his super-coiffed hair. He retired after a last-run disaster in Sochi, then came back while holding down a full-time job, and everything he’s done over the last two years has been about getting ready for this race. He’ll go for broke, and it may net him a medal.

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MORE: First U.S. skeleton slider qualifies for PyeongChang

Collin Morikawa jumps into projected Olympic golf field

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Collin Morikawa would not have qualified outright for the Tokyo Olympics had they been held this summer. Now, after winning the PGA Championship, he is third overall in global qualifying for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Morikawa, a 23-year-old who took the same number of PGA Tour starts to win his maiden major as Tiger Woods (29), went from an alternate for the expected four-man U.S. Olympic team to No. 2 among Americans in the early qualifying standings, according to golf rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter.

Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are the other Americans in qualifying position, according to @VC606.

Morikawa, whose father is of Japanese descent, turned professional in June 2019 and made his first 22 cuts, a feat bettered only by Woods.

The 23-year-old could become the youngest U.S. Olympic male golfer since 1904 (important note: golf was not part of the Olympic program from 1908 through 2012). Come next summer, he will still be younger than all but seven men from the Rio Olympic golf field of 60, according to Olympedia.org.

Olympic golf qualifying standings will fluctuate significantly. There are five major championships left in the qualifying window, starting with the U.S. Open in September and finishing with next summer’s U.S. Open, both airing on NBC Sports.

How tough will it be to make the U.S. Olympic team? Consider that the three Americans to win majors in 2019 — Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland — are currently not in Olympic qualifying position.

The U.S. has seven of the top nine in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is calculated differently than Olympic qualifying.

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?

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He controversially beat Roy Jones Jr. for Olympic gold. He wishes he had silver.

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The last South Korean boxer to win an Olympic gold medal has spent the past 32 years wishing it was a silver.

Entering the men’s light-middleweight final against an American teenager named Roy Jones Jr. on the last day of the 1988 Games in Seoul, Park Si-Hun fantasized about etching his name in the pantheon of South Korean sports legends in front of a delirious home crowd.

He did get his gold three rounds later, but not the way he envisioned.

Park’s win by a 3-2 decision remains as one of the most controversial moments in boxing history, as Jones had seemed to dominate the fight from start to finish.

The outcome drew instant criticism and disdain, even from South Koreans, who heckled Park at the podium and bombarded local TV stations with phone calls protesting that the country’s home advantage had gone too far.

Jones went on to have a phenomenal professional career, retiring in 2018 with a 66-9 record that cemented him as one of the sport’s all-time greats. He is now a boxing commentator and is planning to fight Mike Tyson in an exhibition of retired greats later this year.

Deeply shaken and scarred, Park quietly retired at the end of the Seoul Games and spent the next 13 years as a middle- and high-school teacher in a rural seaside town before making a return to competitive boxing as a coach.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Park said his dream was to see one of his boxers pull off a convincing gold-winning performance in a future Olympics, which he said would possibly give him some sense of redemption and closure.

After three decades, it still stings that his gold is seen as a smudge on the image of the Games his country still glorifies as its coming-out party to the world.

“There’s hardened resentment built up in me that I will probably carry for the rest of my life,” said Park, 54, who now coaches the small municipal boxing team of Seogwipo City in the island province of Jeju.

“I didn’t want my hand to be raised (after the fight with Jones), but it did go up, and my life became gloomy because of that.”

Park still grimaces when talking about his match with Jones.

Desperate for Olympic glory, Park had gutted out the tournament with a broken right hand he suffered during training. He said it didn’t really matter until he met Jones, the one opponent in Seoul who was quicker than him.

With the injury taking away his right-hand, Park simply had no chance at slowing Jones, who was coming at him with “excellent speed, power and technique.”

“I was pretty quick for a middleweight, but Jones was at a different level,” Park recalled. “A boxer just knows whether he had won or lost a match. I thought I lost because I didn’t put up a fight deserving of a win.”

Park said he felt “confused” when the referee raised his hand. Wearing a stunned look on his face, Park awkwardly embraced and held up an expressionless Jones into the air.

He said he couldn’t wait to get off the podium, where he smiled weakly and slowly waved a bouquet of flowers toward the stands as fans let out hesitant cheers and scattered boos.

An even more humiliating moment came when a South Korean national broadcaster invited all of the country’s 12 gold medalists to a live TV celebration shortly after the Games. The host treated Park like he wasn’t there while interviewing each of the other 11.

There was an outpouring of media criticism and what Park described as “unspeakable” insults, which included derisive public calls for him to forfeit his medal.

The emotional distress “was like being hit with a hammer on the back of your head, again and again.”

“I keep thinking how my life would have been happier had I finished second,” Park said. “A gold medal is important, but isn’t any Olympic medal satisfying and glorious?”

Park said the sense of defeat and depression sometimes led to suicidal urges. He credits his wife for helping him navigate out of his darkest moods. The couple contemplated moving to a different country before deciding to stay after they had children.

Their youngest child, Rei, now a 20-year-old college student in Louisiana, has his own athletic ambitions, training as a javelin thrower with dreams of competing in the 2024 Olympics.

Park said he keeps his Olympic gold framed on a wall at his home in mainland South Korea, along with other awards he won in amateur competition. He doesn’t recall ever bringing it out of the house.

While Park doesn’t have many regrets about never going pro, saying he probably wouldn’t have gone far with an evasive style built for efficiency and avoiding hits but not for initiating pain, he still watched Jones’ post-Olympic triumphs with envy.

He wondered whether the public would ever forget the fiasco surrounding his gold medal, which the South Korean media brought up after almost every Jones fight or whenever there was controversy in any Olympic sport. He would try to laugh it off whenever students asked about his gold at school.

After overlooking him for years, South Korea’s boxing association reached back to Park in 2001, asking him to coach the national team following years of disappointing performances in international events, which reflected a dearth of talent in the sport.

During his on-and-off coaching stints with the national team since then, Park trained several boxers who performed decently in various events, but they never came close to an Olympic gold.

Park had the highest hopes for Lee Ok-Song, who won the men’s 51kg division in the 2005 World Championships. But Lee failed to reach the quarterfinals of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and retired after the Games.

Park said he had occasionally kept in touch with Jones, including a brief telephone conversation with him in 2004 while visiting Atlanta for an international event.

The International Olympic Committee in 1997 concluded it had found no evidence to support bribery allegations against the judges who voted in favor of Park in the Seoul Games.

The U.S. Olympic Committee had called for an investigation in 1996 after documents belonging to East Germany’s Stasi secret police revealed reports of judges being paid to vote for South Korean boxers.

While Park left South Korea’s national team after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, he hasn’t given up on his goal of winning an Olympic gold as a coach.

Among the four boxers he trains in Seogwipo, Park is most impressed with Kang Hyeon-Bin, who competes in the men’s 64kg division, and Cho Hye-Bin, a woman in the 51kg category.

“I am constantly looking for a raw stone I could polish into a jewel,” he said. “I want to sculpt a true Olympic gold medalist with my own hands and see that fighter take the highest spot on the podium. That would restore my honor and allow me to leave the boxing ring for good.”

MORE: Top U.S. Olympic boxing hopeful cleared of doping violations caused by sex

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