Unless you are a true, neon-blue, dyed-in-the-gore-tex ski groupie or someone who enjoys standing in the tilt mode on the side of a mountain and peering through a blizzard so that you can glimpse for a matter of seconds Alberto Tomba's spandexed and bibbed and begoggled figure speeding into the finish area, you are not likely to be able to distinguish him from any other slalom racer—or from your neighborhood Domino's delivery guy, either.
The reasons are simple, starting with 1) the nuances of style, form and technique in skiing, which are sufficiently esoteric to make it impossible to tell the racers apart. Despite what the sport's experts insist, ski viewing is unlike distinguishing between, say, Barry Sanders and Barry Manilow. Wasn't it James Bond himself who chased over the snows after some incredibly nasty villain only to catch up, rip his prey's mask off and discover it was Ursula Andress or somebody? Then there's 2) the fact that you just can't see these racers close enough in the 3) five minutes max—and, more often, two runs totaling 2:02.485 and one ten-thousandth of a second—in which they perform in an event, what with 4) them hidden head to toe in all those exquisite rainbow wrappings and 5) you stranded somewhere up on the hill wondering if your teeth were this numb during that last root canal.
Some spectator sport, skiing. Not.
Except for one thing: Alberto Tomba's thighs. Through all the long distances and the cold temperatures and—zip! he just went by; sorry, you can't be turning your head in this deal—the impossibly quick sightings, it is difficult to miss or even mistake Tomba's thighs. They are not defined by outsized bulges or ripples or any other steamy-novel characterizations. They are just hard, solid mass. "It is impossible to pinch them," says Tomba's physical trainer, Giorgio d'Urbano. Like Bob Lanier's feet, Paul Newman's eyes, Don King's hair, the thighs of Tomba are singular forces of nature—twin peaks of prodigious power that are primarily responsible for the speed, strength, turning ability and feel for the snow that enable Tomba to both attack the slalom poles viciously and finesse his way to all those winning times.
"What's the difference in you now?" Tomba was asked recently by a journalist mindful of the flickering of Tomba's radiant star over the past few winters.
"Fat to muscle...change," Tomba said in his halting yet lilting English. He pointed to one of those blue-jean-covered slabs jutting out from a table at a hotel bar in Breckenridge, Colo. "You can touch me if you want." Would any curious human reject the chance to caress Don King's hair?
Tomba was half right. Fat to concrete...change.
A couple of blizzards later, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Tomba wiped out the best ski racers from around the globe in Park City, Utah, to open this World Cup season, winning both the slalom and the giant slalom (GS) with his usual pizzazz. One day, too hyper to wait, he leaped from a moving ski lift before the prerace course examination so he could get to the starting hut that much quicker.
Back in Breckenridge the next week, Tomba finished second in a GS and a slalom to Paul Accola, who resembles a young Sonny Jurgensen incarnate as a chipmunk-cheeked carpenter from Davos, Switzerland. After the races, Tomba presented Accola with a celebratory plate of spaghetti, and Accola promised Tomba some retaliatory Swiss cheese at a future date.
Royalty and serfs usually know their places. "The danger," Accola admitted, "is to become the victim of a Tomba complex." And earlier, talking to his mates on the Italian team near a microphone that he didn't know was turned on, Tomba had said of Accola, "Now even this cabbage has started winning. It's going to be hard, boys." To the Italian reporters, who cover Tomba as they would any other mortal who combines the renown of a royal potentate, a rock star and a mass killer, Tomba—obviously thinking Accola was Sonny Jurgensen—said, "I must get more evil. Wait until we get to Europe and he finds out what it's like to ski away from home."
Came the crossing to Italy, and Tomba won the slalom at Sestriere and the GS at Alta Badia. That made four victories in the first six races he entered—and he probably blew the slalom in Breckenridge when he smacked his head against a gate pole, knocking his goggles askew, and had to readjust them partway down the hill.
If anyone thought that such a familiar World Cup beginning, eerily reminiscent of the 1987-88 season—when Tomba started with two victories and finished with a total of nine, plus two Olympic gold medals in between—would go unnoticed, perish the thought. TOMBA SPACCA IL MONDO ("Tomba Smashes the World") blared La Gazzetta dello Sport, a national sports newspaper in Italy. "We are back to Tombamania," wrote Piero Ratti in his lead.
"I really lack the words to compliment myself today," Tomba himself told eight million Italians who were watching television at home.
Tomba doesn't ski the other traditional discipline, the treacherous, for-daredevils-not-to-mention-psychotics-only downhill, out of respect for his mother, who forbade him to take on the race as a child. While it almost annually costs him a chance at the overall World Cup—last year he finished only 20 points behind Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg, who skis all the disciplines, including the Super G, a hybrid of the GS and the downhill, and who has won four World Cups—Tomba's abstinence undoubtedly lends this immensely popular skier even more humanity. Put another way, it makes him sane.
As the somewhat tasteless but awesomely loud P.A. announcer bellowed after Tomba fell to his knees and kissed the snow in Park City: "FTD! Get ready for your biggest order ever! Women will be getting in on this action! In Rome tomorrow morning four paternity suits will be filed. This guy means more to Italy than Montana does to San Francisco!"
Well, not close. In fact, Tomba la Bomba ("the Bomb") first came to international notice in 1987 when he won a bronze medal in the giant slalom at the world championships at Joe Montana—uh, Crans-Montana—Switzerland. During the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, more than 16 million Italians watched Tomba on live television. Upon his return home to Bologna, the local soccer club had to arrange for him to be airlifted onto the stadium pitch for a pregame celebration in front of 50,000 spectators. At the resort where he used to ski, races were held in his honor and admiringly called the Tombiad. It wasn't too long before he was crowing that the next Winter Olympics had "been named for me." Get it? Alberto in Albertville.
And now, right on schedule, Tomba has progressed all the way back to those golden days in '88 when none other than Ingemar Stenmark, who also eschewed the downhill but was arguably the most successful skier of all time (86 World Cup race wins, three overall World Cups, gold medals in the slalom and GS at the 1980 Olympics), defined the new kid as "the best slalom racer ever." And nobody argued.
In December at Alta Badia, security precautions were taken to protect Tomba, an action unprecedented outside a papal visit. Indeed, Gianni Merlo of La Gazzetta dello Sport said of the scene: "In Italy there is the pope, the president, the national soccer team coach, then Tomba. But now maybe we have a change in order."
Having won five slaloms and two giant slaloms this season for a total of 26 World Cup victories in his career, Tomba is rampaging into the 16th Winter Games in the French Alps next week on the crest of a frightful avalanche of expectation that he will be the first man ever to repeat a double—win back-to-back gold medals in two events—in the Winter Games.
Toni Sailer, 20 at the time, and Jean-Claude Killy, 24, tripled in 1956 and 1968, respectively, winning all the Alpine races, but neither ever returned to the Olympics as a competitor. With the new staggered scheme, the next Winter Olympics will be held in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, when Tomba will be only 27 and when, depending on what happens over the next couple of weeks, the term triple-double may take on a whole new meaning.
What really frightens Tomba's rivals is his consistency; he has been strong for five years, and despite the staggering improvement in ski equipment, the new depth of talent in the sport—17-year-old whiz kids bettering Killy's speeds—and the difficulty of dominating the fields week after week, Tomba's results on the World Cup circuit have been monstrous.
Actually, this season is just the culmination of Tomba's rededication to the sport and his careful reconstruction by a veritable squadron of experts. Three years ago, reportedly at the instigation of his impatient father, Franco, Tomba was put into the coaching hands of Gustavo Thoeni, the revered Italian star of the '70s who, with Girardclli and Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland, holds the record of four overall World Cup titles. "Thoeni is the one who never speaks," Tomba says of his mentor. "But when he does, he says all the right things."
In turn, to Team Tomba came d'Urbano and Thomas Felderer, another physiotherapist, to work on his body; Dr. Fulvio Quizza, a sports psychologist, to work on his mind; Arturo Maiolani, a ski expert from Rossignol; and Robert Brunner, the bear of a gofer employed by International Management Group and the Italian team, who does everything for Tomba during the ski season, from driving his car and tending his cellular phone to swathing him in promotional patches and hurling him before international television cameras after each of his victories.
This has been a bit much for the other members of the Italian team, who train separately from Tomba. Early in the season one of them asked Tomba to go for a training run with him. "O.K.," Tomba said. "But if I beat you by a minute, you will promise to go away and not bother me."
"I heard that he did that, but he would never try it with me," says Konrad Ladstaetter, another member of the Italian team, who has taken a medal in one World Cup race this season. "Alberto plays always the king, and that will catch up to him. We don't need him to train with us; this is not football. But actually, when all the attention and pressure are on him, it gives us nothing to lose."
"Tomba? Who ever sees him?" asks team member Luca Pesando. "Our technical and competitive growth was not promoted by him, which is a pity because he would have a lot to teach us."
"Alberto is free to behave as he wants; his life-style and preparation are completely different from ours," says teammate Alberto Senigagliesi. "But I really don't think he has much feeling for team spirit."
Now fully recovered from his self-doubt of the past few seasons, Tomba is circumspect about all his rivals, Italian and otherwise. "It is not a question of the others catching up [to me]," he says. "I am braking sometimes. When I ski well, I win."
In case anyone didn't realize that Tomba had ever skied less than perfectly, that he had disappeared from the top of the mountain—he had. At least, he had failed to dominate what ski aficionados like to call the White Circus. Part ringmaster, part trapeze artist and part trained chimp, Tomba has been up and down since the '88 Winter Games. Over the past three seasons he has slumped, swayed, broken a collarbone, lived up to his image as a roistering bon vivant—eat, drink and make merry (if not Katarina Witt) is not so much a cliche to Tomba as his birthright—and let his skiing become, as French journalist and ski expert Patrick Lang lamented, "progressively melancholic."
Though Tomba did win six races in the World Cup last season, he blew off course and did not finish five of eight slaloms, his specialty. Moreover, his major notoriety last season came in March—ironically, back in Canada, at a World Cup stop in Lake Louise—when he was accused of cutting into a lift line, knocking down a woman and being abusive to Mounties. Acting "like a Neanderthal" was how the manager of the ski area put it. As a result, Tomba's lift privileges were revoked, and he was told he couldn't compete unless he publicly apologized. "I would not." Tomba says. "There's no way I was going to apologize. I spoke to the girl I knocked over and rode the lift up with her. Everything was fine. People make fools of [European skiers] because they don't understand our language."
As a result, Tomba did not ski in the Super G at Lake Louise, which, had he won it, might have given him the overall World Cup title. In protest, Girardelli refused to race as well. Later, a Tele Monte Carlo cameraman, Gianluca Barca, who was an eyewitness to the lift-line incident, wrote the Federation Internationale de Ski and corroborated Tomba's story, leading the federation to withdraw the sanction of Lake Louise to hold World Cup races."Anybody who knows Tomba as a gentleman and womanizer knows he probably kissed her rather than kicked her ass," says Lang in a rather bizarre entry in the new series Sex Wars of the Rich and Fairly Famous.
At the very next tour stop, Waterville Valley, N.H., after Tomba jumped up on the women's victory stand to give a congratulatory kiss to the surprise American winner, Julie Parisien, everybody wanted to know how close they were. "He saw me in the hall two days ago and walked right by," said Parisien. "He's such a picture pig."
At least Tomba was raised in the utmost of polite circumstances. When he exploded out of nowhere in 1987, nowhere turned out to be his wealthy family's expansive villa on the outskirts of Bologna. Tomba was sculptured enough back then, 5'11", 200 pounds, with husky shoulders and thighs that gave him the look of a fullback masquerading as a ballet dancer. At Nakiska, outside Calgary, in '88—Alberto in Alberta—he was the first man down the giant slalom hill, and nobody after him had a chance. A couple of days later, in the slalom, he came from behind to win by the slimmest margin in Olympic history: .06 of a second.
Before those Games, Tomba had fairly shouted after one victory, "Sono una bestia!" ("I am a beast!") In Madonna di Campiglio—where else?—he had proclaimed himself "the Messiah" of skiing. Down deep, however, the animal he really turned out to be was of the persuasion festa. Translation: "party." The ultimate anomaly in a sport filled with sinewy, dour hermits from Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia who grew up tending cows and learning to ski out of necessity, Tomba was a lowlander, a rich kid and an urban dude—in truth, the first big-city guy ever to win Olympic skiing gold.
Fun lover, playboy, trencherman, connoisseur of wine, women and song (well, Michael Jackson)—what hot-blooded Bolognese of 21 wouldn't be?—Tomba returned home after Calgary and was treated to a motorcade through his suburban town of San Lazzaro di Savenna. A band played the triumphal march from Verdi's Aida. The skier had to be rescued by the police from 10,000 screaming fans. Later, he visited with the president of Italy, Francesco Cossiga, and with another avid skier and fan who nonetheless wasn't reported to have done much screaming, Pope John Paul II.
Over the next couple of ski seasons, Tomba continued to be boastful, noisy and lacking in restraint, eating too many noodles and drinking too much Lambrusco. He was Italy's most beloved athlete since Paolo Rossi of the 1982 World Cup-winning soccer squad. But he got fat and too sassy—pretty much in that order. Albertone, a heretofore affectionate nickname, went from meaning Big Alberto to Fat Alberto. When he didn't win every week, his names in the press got slimier: Cicciobombolo ("a fatty, bloated bomb")...Cicciotombolo ("falling fatty").
"I didn't want to open a newspaper any longer," says his mother, Maria Grazia. "They even pulled out my tortellini and tagliatelle. I don't even know how to make tagliatelle.... Alberto is somebody who had too many bells ringing around him. Before, it was right for him to be what he was, only a boy, and god forbid if he had been any different. He was splendid and adorable because of it."
When some provocative photos of Tomba in a skimpy bathing suit appeared in the Italian press following the Olympics, Tomba was rebuked by Ivo Colozzi, a member of the conservative Catholic group Communion and Liberation. At a Christian Democratic party congress in Bologna, Colozzi accused Tomba of being "a hedonistic, narcissistic sinner."
That's not precisely a messiah; in some parts of Italy, though, it meant the guy couldn't be all bad. But at some point Tomba himself decided he was forking down too much pasta and smothering his talent in tomato sauce, hot piadine (pizza bread), hotter belle donne and exhausting nights on the town.
"To understand Alberto it is only necessary to understand Bologna," says d'Urbano, the short, slight, amiable trainer. A cultural cross between Newport without yachts and Beverly Hills without Warren Beatty, Bologna is a wonder of expensive restaurants and shops. Italy is still divided by the stereotypes of its city-states; if Milan is money-hungry business and Rome is flighty arrogance, Bologna is cheerful insouciance...and some of the best food in all the world. "I don't care. I am a clown. I want every day to be a holiday" is the credo of the ski-child Tomba, the living, laughing spirit of his home base.
Tomba's father owns Minarelli, an exclusive men's clothing shop in Bologna. The business was created by Alberto's grandfather, and someday Alberto's older brother, Marco, will assume control of it. A dozen miles south of Bologna is Castel di Britti, a group of pastel villas nestled in the foothills of the Apennines; perched alone on one of the hills is the Tomba villa, restored from the original built in the 16th century by Cardinal Pizzaro. Gardens, fountains, dogs—Tomba's own favorite is a schnauzer named Rommel—and luxury cars are all around. What is most notable is that the wealth on display across the vast grounds had little to do with the emergence of the young man who inspired the message once seen on a white wall bordering the narrow road below: ALBERTO IS THE CONQUEROR OF THE WHITE WORLD.
Moreover, a wealthy kid from the big city of Bologna making it huge in the world of skiing is as unlikely as some backwoods hick out of West Monroe, La., suddenly cropping up as a five-goal polo prodigy.
"Tomba created his own little world in skiing," says Lang, who has known him from the beginning. "The style and technique are unique in themselves, but it is his way with the people, how he plays with the people, his accessibility, his connection to them, his joie de vivre, that make him so special."
In technique alone, Tomba has revolutionized the slalom, hitting the snow so strongly, finding speed that doesn't seem to be there for others. And yet for all his strength and power, he is at base a finesse guy, elegant, almost quiet in his lines. "Like Nureyev," says Tomba's first teacher, Roberto Siorpaes, who with his wife, 1960 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist Yvonne Rugg, taught Tomba his technique and style during the winter holidays that the Tomba family spent at the chic resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo.
As for "the people," Tomba did indeed bring a new blue-collar audience to skiing in Italy. Hero worship became his own cross to bear. When he won, his countrymen were ecstatic; when he lost, they had lost too. Such pressure. Even in the down season following his Olympic glory, 20,000 of Tomba's flock poured into the Dolomite resort of Madonna di Campiglio (normal pop. 1,000) for a World Cup slalom in December 1988. They literally hung from the trees to catch a glimpse of him and caused a traffic jam that took 24 hours to untangle.
"World War III will break out if I don't win this race," he said then; it would be his only victory of the season.
"I am going to tell you my dream," Tomba once said to a French magazine writer. "I want to take a drink, just before the start of a race. Drink some alcohol, some wine, you'll see. And then stop in the middle of the slalom to smoke a cigarette. Then continue, and win." Once, at Alta Badia, he crossed the finish line while waving madly to some friends along the hill. Last year at Waterville Valley. in a parallel slalom race, he pulled off a 360-degree helicopter move, then slid off his skis and skidded the rest of the way in his boots.
"He has the audience in his blood," says the anti-Toniba, his stern-visaged coach, Thoeni.
Tomba has mooned a waiter in Rome, posed seminude in a sauna (TOMBA: PORN STAR? cried a French paper) and taken the opportunity in another photo shoot to do a handstand in a swimming pool, balancing himself on a model's ample breasts.
"You are not shooting me today, swimming?" he asked a film crew that was doing a documentary on him for Tele Monte Carlo last summer.
"We took you yesterday, swimming," a cameraman said.
"But I am today doing another stroke," Tomba said.
Picture pig? In Italy, this particular porker is considered endearing rather than obnoxious, his behavior described by the verb pavoneggiarsi, "to strut about like a peacock." Outrageous egoism is fine, the Italians point out, if a fellow is amiable, guileless and the best skier on the world mountain. So what if he failed his secondary school exams twice and brought roses to the examiners and then was unable to recognize a poem that many Italian grade schoolers can recite? So what if as a carabinicre—a job he has held for many years in order to fulfill his military obligation without performing actual military duty—all Tomba has to do is make a few ceremonial appearances and shake hands with dignitaries? "The uniform," he says, "ahhh, it is the best."
"Tomba is like, I think, your tennis player, Gerulaitis, but with the record of Borg," suggests Lang. Actually, Tomba's career is more a mirror of Boris Becker's: Infant streaks to top—like Becker when he won Wimbledon at 17, Tomba had no earthly idea what he was doing when he won Olympic gold at 21—falters, levels off, streaks again, conducts a love-hate affair with his native land, wonders if saving the world wouldn't be less of a hassle.
As for the outward display of closeness at which Tomba and Girardelli work—the two have joked that following their skiing careers they will pair up in Hollywood, the latter as makeup man to the former as movie star-this may be nothing but a, uh, snow job. Earlier this season Charlie Meyers of The Denver Post asked Girardelli what he thought of Tomba's statement that he would concentrate as much on the World Cup as on the Olympics. "Ask me something important," snapped Girardelli.
What's really significant is that Tomba is still so much fun, which is the name of the game for Italians. In another video shot by Tele Monte Carlo, this one in Vail, Colo., in 1989, Tomba wears a ten-gallon hat and somersaults off a fence into the snow; then he saunters into a saloon to the theme from Bonanza, walks up to a picture of John Wayne and says, "John Wayne, I'll never forget you. You've beaten the Indians. I've won the slaloms."
But has he won all the women? Now we're talking Significant in Italy. Tomba's brief encounter with the East German skater, Witt, at Calgary has been inflated into the greatest shoot-down in the history of dating. He brought her roses and a signed poster of himself. Shortly after they were introduced, she rushed off to watch the remainder of the skating competition. It might have helped if, in the inscription on the poster, her name had been spelled correctly. His advances reportedly have also been spurned by Princess Stephanie of Monaco, Brooke Shields and U.S. skier Pam Fletcher.
"What about Fletcher, who says you invited her to sleep with you?" Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune asked Tomba at a Vail press conference in 1989.
"She used my name for publicity," Tomba said. "We met in Argentina. We said we would be together forever."
"So is it a problem because there are too many women who want to make love with you?" asked Hersh.
"Your daughter, maybe?" asked Tomba.
"I have only a six-month-old son," said Hersh.
"What about your wife?" asked Tomba.
"My wife, no," said Hersh.
"Have you asked?" cried out several Italian journalists. "Let her choose."
"[Tomba] has turned into Mozart's Don Giovanni," wrote Hersh about the exchange, "acting the role of the unrepentant playboy with good humor. He has, as the chorus would say, fatto una bella figura, which means to cut a swath in public. To many Italians, that is the most important thing in life."
Once a swath-cutter....
Nearly three winters later, Tomba sits in a bar in Breck-enridge, where another reporter asks him about Magic Johnson. "Ah, yes, is very sad," he says. "Of course I have to watch out. Of course I have to change my life-style because of this."
Tomba has smoky green eyes, black curls cropped close all around, the half-shaved look that has been out since about the time he was dominating his first Olympics. He would resemble the pop singer George Michael if Michael showered daily in olive oil. He is wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and, among his gold bracelets, a ratty homemade cotton wristlet that SAYS I LOVE PINK PANTHER, a good-luck token from his 15-year-old sister, Alessia, who gave it to him on the eve of his conquests in Calgary. Tomba looks good like a skier should. Not as good as Andy Mill—former U.S. ski team member and present CBS analyst, husband to Chris Evert, all-around good guy and best-looking human on the planet—but good like the million bucks per year Tomba reputedly clears in endorsement fees.
Over the next couple of hours Tomba will leave and return to the bar area several times, becoming bored when the interview strays too far from his favorite sport, women. "Perfect," he says, spotting one across the room. "Bella donna," he says, looking out the window. "Mamma mia," he sighs and describes the female anatomy with his hands—we are not making this up—as another skier of the fair sex approaches a table.
"So what about Brooke Shields?" he is asked.
"I don't know her...." he says, haltingly. "Wait...no...the actress?... Laguna Blu?... Ah, magnifica.... Bella donna. Do you know her? Maybe you can arrange I meet her? Maybe you can fix up this for me?"
"What about your girlfriend, Cristina?" It is said that Tomba's relationship with the blonde-curled, long-suffering Cristina Bignami, who works in a Benetton shop in Bologna, has cooled.
"She is always getting mad at me," he says.
"What about Miss Italy?" As a judge in the Miss Italy pageant in Rimini last September, Tomba helped choose Martina Colombari, whose father owns a pizzeria in Riccione. Then he started dating her. "Your father says the stories about you and her are nonsense."
"Sshhhhh," says Tomba, putting a finger to his lips. "This is dangerous. She lives only an hour away from me. She is only 17. Too young?"
"Probably. I think so," says the interviewer, who doesn't understand how he started this discussion as a representative of a reputable sports magazine and wandered into territory normally reserved for telephone match-making services. Or for Phil Hersh. "I have a daughter, 21, and she's...."
"What? Nooooo. You fooling with me? Does she like skiing? She knows me? Is she beautiful? Yes?" Tomba rattles on and on. I am a clown. Every day is a holiday. He is obviously kidding.
But a few days later the reporter and the ski racer encounter each other again, by chance, at a shop in Park City. "1 look up where you live in America," Tomba says. "Sout Car-o-leen-a. Nice beaches. Lots of bikinis. I know all about this. I see you in the spring." Tomba may not be kidding.
Ultimately, the reporter is uncertain whether La Bomba from Bologna will strike gold again in the French Alps, turn the White Circus into a male-chauvinist black hole or show up later at the reporter's own doorstep by the Carolina seashore. Or all three.
Some spectator sport, skiing.