PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Yun Sungbin has spent thousands of hours at the sliding track his nation built for these Pyeongchang Olympics, studying every nuance and scrutinizing every inch.
He knows it better than anyone alive.
And the payoff for that work is potentially two runs away.
South Korea has never been close to an Olympic medal in any sliding sport, and Yun — the one his nation identified as the slider with the most potential of becoming a star at these games — is expected to change all that. He emerged from Thursday's first two runs of the men's skeleton competition with a huge lead over Nikita Tregubov, one of the Olympic Athletes from Russia.
Yun's time: 1 minute, 40.35 seconds. Thousands of his countrymen showed up on Thursday morning to watch, and organizers expect even more on Friday when he will be the overwhelming favorite to emerge from the final two runs as a gold medalist.
"I think it would be more of a surprise if he didn't win a gold," U.S. skeleton veteran John Daly said.
It was not a banner start for the U.S., which will need to seriously rally to reach the medal mix. Matt Antoine, the reigning Olympic bronze medalist, had a strong second run and will enter Friday in 11th place. Daly, back in his third Olympics after a brief retirement following a last-run debacle in Sochi, is tied for 13th.
"Second run was a lot better," Antoine said. "That's probably the best run I've had down the track. ... I proved to myself that I can put down the good runs. So two more clean, consistent runs and we'll see where that leaves me."
Unless Yun makes a huge mistake, it's over. His margin over Tregubov is 0.74 seconds. That's a lifetime in sliding, especially when considering that the winning margin in the last four men's skeleton events at the Olympics is 1.21 seconds — combined.
Yun's home-ice advantage is an important part of this Olympic story, though it's not why he's winning. He wins everywhere. He toyed with the World Cup circuit this season, winning five times and finishing second in his other two starts. He won the overall season points total even after skipping the final race to prep for Pyeongchang.
Latvia's Martins Dukurs is third at the midway point, 0.88 seconds off the lead.
"Really simple. I made less mistakes in the second run," Dukurs said. "This track is tricky. We'll see. I'm not under any pressure."
Britain, which made a splash before the event with news of some high-tech uniforms that had other competitors questioning their legality, was led by Dom Parsons and his fourth-place showing after the first two runs.
Parsons said every team is chasing technological edges, and he thinks the British have tinkered smartly enough with speedsuits and sled setups to be in the medal mix.
"It's not a huge margin," Parsons said. "It's just all the little hundreths everywhere that hopefully add up."