In one month, Alberto Tomba of Italy will be standing in a chute on Calgary's Mount Allan awaiting the start of the Olympic slalom, an event which he now must almost certainly be favored to win. The other racers, no doubt, will have their minds running, plotting strategy or wondering why their shorts had to pick this particular moment to ride up or visualizing themselves being awarded the gold medal. But Tomba, who washed cars at last year's world championships, will be looking down the hill and between his ears will be nothing but rumore bianco, white noise. "I don't think about the competition," Tomba says. "I only go. That's it. And the results, they come."
If there is a method in this, Tomba seems to be its perfect master, airheading his way to six victories and one second-place finish in eight World Cup slalom and giant slalom races this season. "To be a good racer today you must be brainless, or be able to turn off the brain," says former Italian star Erwin Stricker. "For that reason, Tomba will win a lot of races."
Only two months ago, Tomba, a 21-year-old policeman from a suburb of Bologna, was unknown outside Italy and was barely known in it for anything other than his odd name. (Tomba means "grave," as in cemetery plot.) He had never won a single World Cup race before November, and when he finally did win the first race of the season at Sestriere, the Italian fans tried to brighten up that lamentable handle by referring to him as Tomba la Bomba (the Bomb).
Tomba increased his inventory of names and began building his own legend when he crossed the finish line at Sestriere screaming, "Sono una bestia!" (I am a beast!). At least that's how it sounded to spectators lining the course, although it's possible that in all the excitement they got it wrong, and that what Tomba really said was "Sono un pesto!", which, roughly translated, means "I am a green herb sauce!"
January 25, 1988
Either way, it was clear almost immediately that Tomba was something the World Cup circuit had not seen in a long, long time—a brash and daring racer who wears more on his sleeve than advertising patches. At Madonna di Campiglio, where Tomba won another slalom to remain undefeated after four races, he suddenly blurted out to a startled interviewer, "I am the new messiah of skiing!"
Tomba's ascendance to the loaves-and-fishes level of the sport comes at a very good time. After a decade of dominance by those two madcap blonds Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden and Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland, the World Cup corps has been badly in need of a breath of fresh air.
Both Stenmark and Zurbriggen have been almost ascetic in their devotion to training, off to bed early every night, where they presumably fall asleep counting their virtues. The most controversial thing Zurbriggen ever did was to make pilgrimages to Lourdes to pray, while the dour Stenmark managed to set the World Cup record for most victories, 85, while steadfastly avoiding the press. "Let's face it," says an Italian journalist, "Pirmin's a great skier and a nice guy, but he's just too nice. Stenmark's boring, too; he just doesn't want to talk about it."
Tomba, in dazzling contrast, is the party animal of the ski circuit. He is uncomfortable around puritans like Zurbriggen and Stenmark. "I don't want to become like them," he says. "I'm considered the clown of my team because I cannot be serious for two minutes. I'm afraid if I become more serious I will stop winning. Maybe I will learn not to say bad words in the future, but that is the best to be hoped for. This is my character and I cannot change."
"Tomba takes skiing seriously when he's in the starting gate," says sports agent and friend Marco Fontanesi, "but before and after, he's a different person. On the mountain, Zurbriggen is working at his job. For Alberto it is still fun."
At Val Badia this season, Tomba was having so much fun and was so far ahead in the giant slalom that he began waving at the crowd as he rounded the gates during the race. At the end of his second run that day he pounded himself vigorously on the chest as he crossed the finish line. "I was so happy, I had to congratulate myself," Tomba says.
"A lot of people don't like him because he is so full of himself," says Fontanesi. That could account for Zurbriggen's unwillingness to give Tomba his due last month at Kranjska Gora, Yugoslavia. Implying that all the best World Cup skiers were husbanding their energy for the Olympics in February, Zurbriggen had the cheek to claim a moral victory because his time in the second run had been eight-tenths of a second faster than Tomba's. "To me, being fastest in the second leg is like the victory," Zurbriggen said, overlooking the fact that Tomba had nearly blown him off the mountain in the first run, building up a lead of 1.8 seconds.
"When I start to really try to win," says Tomba with a dismissive wave of the hand, "then perhaps I will have to give my opponents a three-second head start instead of the one second I give them now."
To understand why Tomba has so quickly become a national hero in Italy, one has only to reflect on the way he looks and the way he moves. Tomba, with his insolent swagger, boundless self-confidence and strong upper body worthy of a fighting bull, is the embodiment of a particularly Italian kind of machismo. "He is extremely powerful," says Gustav Th‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áni, Italy's Olympic slalom coach and winner of the giant slalom gold medal at Sapporo in 1972. "He succeeds in transmitting to the skis his dynamite."
Until this season, Tomba's dynamite was wrapped in an extra 13 pounds of fat, and the promise he showed in training runs usually fizzled in competition. Still, there was some reluctance to have him lose weight because, as Guido Siorpaes, one of Tomba's first and most influential coaches, had noted, "Between the poles, he seems a Nureyev."
Last summer Tomba decided to lay off the zabaglione and begin lifting weights. The bodybuilding program reduced his fat content from 17% to less than 10%, and though his weight remains high for a giant slalom racer—194 pounds—the Italian coaches found a way to make his size work for him. Tomba was taught to ski the slalom gates with his feet while flattening the hinged poles with his powerful upper body, so he can go slam dancing nearly straight down the mountain. "Tomba's body allows him to do this," explains Tino Pietrogiovannia, an Italian coach. "Normally skiers are rather thin and they explode between the gates. But when you are thin and hit the gate, you feel very bad and you are not so eager to hit it again."
For la Bestia, this is not a problem. "He's so strong, he can ski at his limits with no mental break," says Swedish trainer Ermano Nogler. "He reminds me of Stenmark in the great years."
Stenmark's style was to build a high wall around himself to prevent his concentration from ever being broken, while Tomba, who seems always to be caught in a cyclone of activity, manages by finding the eye of the storm and letting it swirl harmlessly about him. When he puts on skis, his composure can be astonishing. "He's so quiet between the two runs, it's unbelievable," says Yugoslavian coach Tone Vogrinec. Once he leaves the chute, Tomba is fearless and aggressive. "Sometimes I wonder if he has any nerves at all," says Sepp Messner, yet another Italian coach. "He never seems to feel any pressure; he just does what he wants."
Some people question whether Tomba is really doing what he wants or fulfilling the fantasy of his father, Franco, a successful textile manufacturer who longed to be a skiing champion. The family lived near Bologna in the Po valley, a rich bottomland in the gastronomic heart of Italy. On mornings when there were ski races, Franco would take Alberto and his elder brother, Marco, to the Apennine mountains, more than an hour's drive away, then return after work to pick them up. Every year the family spent Christmas and other holidays in Cortina d'Ampezzo so that the two brothers could devote all their free time to skiing. "I saw that my son was doing well," says Franco, "so I gave him a push to continue. It was the right choice. When he won at Sestriere—well, I confess it—for me it was as if I had been crowned."
Franco originally thought his elder son would turn out to be the better skier and even advised Alberto at one point to concentrate on soccer instead. "My father didn't really believe in me," Tomba told an interviewer two years ago. "He thought I would never become a champion. It made me mad. It motivated me. I was sometimes in the clouds, and that gave me the decisive push."
Alberto grew up in a sixth-century villa called Castel dei Britti; on the grounds was a hill some 50 meters high and nearly 300 meters long. When the air was cold enough, he and Marco would leave a faucet running all night, and by morning they would have their own makeshift ski slope, with enough room for up to 40 slalom gates. Marco eventually gave up racing and went into the family business. "He looked nicer on skis," says Alberto, "but I had more guts."
Last season was Tomba's second on the Italian World Cup team, and though he didn't win any races, he hinted at what was to come when he won Italy's only medal at the world championships—a bronze in the giant slalom—at Crans Montana, Switzerland. He also emerged as the team eccentric, spending some of his spare time there washing cars to pick up extra pocket money.
Tomba has little use for the tedium of regular training. He has learned to create enough excitement around himself so that wherever he is at any given moment is the best place to be. Says Th‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áni, "Even if he is undisciplined—and often I must close both my eyes—I must admit that ultimately he has matured."
It is not known whether Th‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áni had both of his eyes closed when Tomba spent the weekend of his 21st birthday in Kranjska Gora partying for almost 48 hours straight, at one point dressing up in a Santa Claus suit for the amusement of his friends. That same weekend he lost an opportunity to tie Stenmark's 10-year-old record of six consecutive wins at the start of a season when he hooked a gate in the giant slalom and fell. After vigorously celebrating his birthday again that night, he returned the next day with a win in the slalom, as if to prove the first four victories had not been flukes.
Last season, after Italy's Richard Pramotton opened with two giant slalom wins, then faded in January, he was derided as a flash in the pan. "Somebody said the same thing [about me] this season after the third competition," says Tomba. "But I guess they were wrong." Indeed, after his early winning streak, Tomba did the following: finished fifth in the Super G at Val d'Isère, France, on Jan. 10, a remarkable achievement, considering that he rarely trains for the event and only entered this one to preserve his lead in the World Cup's overall point standings; took second in the slalom two days later at Lienz, Austria; and won the slalom at Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria on Sunday. The victory put his World Cup point total at 181, 30 more than Zurbriggen's.
Tomba la Bomba has become the heartthrob of a nation famous for them, his dark curly hair and carefully cultivated three-day growth of beard a natural for the covers of Italy's clamorous sports magazines. His beleaguered girlfriend, whose ring he faithfully wears on a chain as he nonetheless entertains the advances of his camp followers, is not entirely pleased with Tomba's success. "She is very jealous when she sees me on the television surrounded by so many girls," Tomba says. "They are all devouring me with their eyes. I think this upsets her."
Maybe she should just try not to think about this. Just as Tomba is doing.