His surname means "Tomb" in Italian, and never was a man more ill-served by nomenclature than Alberto Tomba, 21, the ski racing rock star of the Winter Olympics. He not only won gold medals in the slalom and giant slalom with all the spirit and power of a thoroughbred stallion, but also celebrated those victories with all the effervescence and abandon of a man born to la dolce vita, a man who seems intent on making his life more and more dolce every day.
This is an article from the March 7, 1988 issue
This is a man named after a cold, silent tomba? This green-eyed daredevil who told a press conference following his second win. on Saturday, that he yearned to meet figure skater Katarina Witt of East Germany that night and that "if she doesn't win a gold medal, I will give her one of mine"? This bear-sized—5' 11½" and 198 pounds—boy who dropped ice cubes down people's backs and threw spitballs during meals while training before the Olympics at a secluded camp in the Canadian Rockies? This sexy yet strangely innocent young man whom women can't resist?
Journalist Leo Turrini, a veteran Tomba-watcher from Bologna, describes him this way: "Alberto is like E.T. He doesn't realize the world is complicated. He thinks everyone is clean and honest, like he is. He has a big conscience. In all these years he has never said a bad thing about his teammates." The last things that come to mind when one is in the presence of Tomba are coffins and tombstones. So what's in a name? In this case, absolutely nothing.
Everything Tomba did in Calgary was suffused with style and charm. In a series of Olympic reports published in Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport, writer Gianni Merlo told one enchanting Tomba story after another. The night before the giant slalom Tomba was strolling through the lobby of his hotel, carrying a couple of panettones. Italian cakes, when he spotted Sigrid Wolf, the Austrian who had won the women's Super G. He sat down at her table, fixed her with a flirtatious smile and said, "Now, you must tell me how you won, otherwise no cake!"
Later he was the first racer down the first run on the giant slalom course. Just before he flung himself out of the start gate. he turned and said to the tense assemblage of competitors behind him, "O.K., boys, keep calm. And good luck to all."
Between runs of the giant slalom, Tomba was standing with his teammates in a trailer when he suddenly left to find a pay phone, punched the zero and called his home in Italy—collect. His 11-year-old sister, Alessia. answered and, obviously confused because she knew he was in the middle of a race, asked him where he was. "I am in Calgary!" said Alberto. "Don't you watch me on TV?" He then chatted briefly with his father, hung up and returned for the second run of the race, in which he won his first gold medal.
Tomba's racing form on Calgary's slalom courses was as serious and controlled as his nonracing behavior was funny and loose. His technique was beautiful; it was a powerful surging style that was so smooth and effortless that at first glance he seemed too laid back to produce a winning performance. Of course, appearances were misleading.
In fact, Tomba skied with an aggressive, athletic grace that resembled that of the greatest slalom specialist of them all, Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, winner of the slalom and giant slalom gold medals at the Lake Placid Games in 1980 as well as 85 World Cup races in his 15-year international career. Pirmin Zurbriggen, who won the downhill at Calgary, is second in World Cup victories with a mere 31.
On Saturday, the 31-year-old Stenmark showed that his aging legs were still competitive by finishing a respectable fifth in the slalom. But then he said he was probably ready to retire and anointed the young Tomba as heir to his throne. "Today there is only Tomba as a slalomist," Stenmark told Tony Chamberlain of the Boston Globe. "Zurbriggen is the best overall, but Tomba may be the greatest slalom skier ever."
"Yes, he is better than I was at Lake Placid. My technique improved after that, so you can imagine where Tomba can get from where he is now."
Last week his potential seemed unlimited. With a superb first run in Thursday's giant slalom, he opened a virtually unbeatable gap of more than a second over his nearest pursuer, the eventual runner-up, Hubert Strolz of Austria, who had already won the gold medal in the men's combined.
Zurbriggen finished third, more than two seconds off the pace. That gave him a bronze medal to go with his downhill gold. Zurbriggen had been saddled with the unreasonable expectation that he might win all five men's Alpine events. Given the quality of the competition, that he failed to come close to attaining this superhuman feat was not a surprise.
Zurbriggen has a 219-213 lead over Tomba in their race for the overall World Cup title. With three downhills and a combined left on the schedule and Tomba not likely to enter any of them, Zurbriggen may win the championship for the second year in a row. Regardless of what happens in the World Cup, in the world of ski racing the days of wine, women and Tomba have effectively replaced the ascetic era personified by the Swiss choirboy of steel.
Tomba's victory in the slalom, the last Alpine event of the Games, clinched his ascension. In the first run, he started 11th down a course that had quickly deteriorated into jarring ruts. He was not his usual silken self on the turns, and he finished the run in third place, a daunting .63 of a second behind Frank W‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árndl, 28, of West Germany, an 11-year veteran whose only other career victory had come in the slalom at last year's world championships in CransMontana, Switzerland.
By the start of the second run the course was harder, and Tomba charged aggressively down the hill to edge W‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árndl by a mere .06 of a second for the gold. His victory was the tightest ever in an Olympic men's slalom race. Paul Frommelt of Liechtenstein got the bronze.
Until this season, Tomba, who has been skiing on the circuit for three years, had not won a World Cup race. Then, beginning with the first event, a slalom in Sestriere, Italy, on Nov. 27, he astonished everyone by winning seven of nine slaloms or giant slaloms. Still, before Calgary some wondered whether he had the nerve to win under Olympic pressure—in fact, during the first week of the Games he failed to finish the Super G because he missed a gate. But his two gold medals removed all doubt about the Tightness of his stuff.
When last seen, Tomba was clearly enjoying his new superskier status. In the finish area after the giant slalom, a French journalist, Patrick Lang, asked him, "What do you call yourself now—a messiah or a hero or a genius?" Tomba replied, "None of those. I am only a happy man."
He then went to a tumultuous victory party at an Italian club, where he sprayed champagne over Forza Tomba, an adoring group of fans from Sestola, the resort where he first competed. Later he became a bubbly barber, using champagne and shaving cream to trim the mustaches of his manager, Alberto (Paletta) Marchi and one of his entourage, Roberto Brunner.
While Tomba was the dominant individual in the men's Alpine events, the Swiss remained the premier team. A powerful new Austrian contingent earned an impressive six medals, and the West Germans got four, but the Swiss continued to hold the upper hand by claiming 11 of the 30 medals available to Alpine racers. Seven of those came in the women's events.
The leading light for Switzerland was Vreni Schneider, who is from the remote village of Elm. She won two gold medals—in the giant slalom and the slalom—surpassing the results of her more famous and more glamorous teammates, Michela Figini and Maria Waihser. Figini, who at 17 had become the youngest skier to win a gold medal in Winter Olympic history when she won the downhill in Sarajevo, finished a disappointing ninth in that event last week, but came in second in the Super G, behind Austria's Wolf.
Walliser got bronzes in the combined and the giant slalom. Afterward, the saucy Walliser told the Swiss tabloid Blick, "I am going to Hollywood." She hastened to add, however, that she would wait until the completion of the 1989 season—after she had gone to acting school and had competed in the world championships in Vail. Walliser also denied persistent reports that she had been offered a small part on Miami Vice, saying that even if she had, she would not be interested in guest appearances of any kind.
Schneider was not interested in TV stardom—or stardom of any kind. When the silver medalist in the slalom, Mateja Svet of Yugoslavia, suggested that Schneider might become "the second Tomba," Schneider protested mightily. "Oh, no, I am not like Tomba," she said. "I want to remain the Vreni I have always been."
It's just as well. One Tomba at a time is about all the world of skiing can possibly handle.