It had been the grandest day in Italian ski racing history, and the next morning the pink front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport was covered with prose that fairly writhed in ecstasy. "Look what gems [skiing] is giving to the ugly Italy of the Mafia, of unpunished crimes, of scandals, of rodent political parties!" cried the daily. "Look what clean stories, what lively emotions, what good examples!"
La Gazzetta gushed on and on about the goings-on of Golden Tuesday. Italy's star of stars, Alberto Tomba, had won the giant slalom. Then a sweet young woman named Deborah Compagnoni had won the Super G. Finally, a quartet of Italian cross-country skiers had claimed the silver medal in the men's 4 x 10-kilometer cross-country relay.
It was the first time ever that La Gazzetta didn't have a mention of soccer on its first page. "This is such a historic and solemn day that even the most dogged soccer fans will never forget it," the paper explained without apology.
Italy did not, of course, win all the Alpine medals. Some other skiers squeezed onto page one in their countries as well. Americans read all about an increasingly powerful U.S. women's team that last week was led by veteran Diann Roffe, who established new standards for true grit by coming from ninth place to get a silver medal in the giant slalom. It had been seven long, injury-riddled years since Roffe had won the world championship GS. Swedish readers learned about the gold-medal triumph in that same Olympic giant slalom by 21-year-old Pernilla Wiberg, a part-time university student who had won the event at last year's worlds as well. Austrians read headlines about their queen of skiing, Petra Kronberger, who won her second gold medal of the Albertville Games by finishing first in the slalom. And New Zealanders, of all people, were presented with an astonishing dispatch claiming that a young slalom specialist named Annelise Coberger had gotten the silver behind Kronberger. Coberger is the first athlete from the Southern Hemisphere to take home a medal from a Winter Olympics.
March 2, 1992
So the news from France bounced all around the world, but in the Alps themselves ski racing seemed to have a distinctly Italian flavor—thanks primarily to Tomba, who came into the Games under enormous pressure. He had won Olympic gold medals in Calgary four years ago in the giant slalom and the slalom. What's more, he had so dominated those events this World Cup season, winning seven times, that many assumed he would become the first Alpine skier ever to pull off double gold triumphs in consecutive Olympics.
When he arrived in Val d'Isère for the giant slalom, sporting a three-day growth of whiskers, the 25-year-old Tomba seemed as cool and cocky as ever. However, in his daily diary for La Gazzetta, he wrote, "I was pretending to be confident, saying that these were the Alberto-ville Olympics. But inside I wasn't at all sure, believe me."
Three years ago, in a World Cup Super G at Val d'Isère, Tomba crashed, breaking his collarbone. That memory had Tomba in a "blue funk" as he prepared for these Games. His mood was broken, though, when he inspected the Olympic course. "Between this piste and me," he told his readers, "it was love at first sight."
The course was perfectly suited to Tomba on race day, Feb. 18. The mountainside was sun-drenched and carpeted with thousands of Tomba-mad Italians. Starting sixth and attacking with his deceptively elegant style, he put up the best time of the first run (1:04.57) and stood a strong .13 of a second ahead of the man with the next fastest time, Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli, who had gotten his first Olympic medal, a silver, in the Super G two days earlier. Between runs Tomba huddled with Fulvio Cuizza, his psychologist, whom Tomba describes as being "just a friend who tells me things like 'you're good, you're strong.' "
"The athlete just needed to chase feelings of fatigue and doubt from his mind," said Gianni Merlo, a journalist for La Gazzetta who follows Tomba closely. "Four years ago concentration would come to Tomba in a moment. He would play until the final minute before starting his run. Now it's more complicated, even for him. 'Now I'm old,' he whispers."
The rules require the top 15 finishers in the first run to ski in reverse order in the second. So Tomba had to watch terrific performances by Girardelli and by Norway's Kjetil-Andre Aamodt, who had already won the Super G, before racing again. When Tomba finally burst through the starting gate, the roar from the Tomba mob crescendoed. He ran like quicksilver, surpassing Girardelli's combined time by .19 of a second and Aamodt's by .60.
Tomba threw up his arms and strode across the finish area, balancing a ski upright on his right hand and basking in the embrace of his adoring fans. After the slopeside celebration he went off to telephone his mother and father at their luxurious villa in Castel de' Britti. For superstitious reasons his parents turned on the TV for Alberto's race, but they didn't watch it live: Mamma Maria Grazia stayed in the garden, and Papa Franco shut himself in his office. When Alberto got his father on the phone, chaos reigned.
"We were talking at the same time, and we couldn't understand a thing," said Alberto later. "Maybe I'll send him a postcard to explain myself better. He told me not to lose the gold medal. I'm putting it around my neck and not taking if off, even when I sleep."
Italian exuberance over Tomba's win was doubled that day by the surprise victory of Compagnoni, who, like Roffe, was a former prodigy on a comeback mission. When she debuted on the World Cup circuit four years ago at age 17, Compagnoni was considered nothing less than a female version of Tomba. But in January 1988 she fell during a downhill race and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. The surgery was difficult, recuperation was slow, and in 1989 more surgery was necessary. Then, in October 1990, she suffered a near-fatal intestinal block. As her father rushed her to the hospital in Sondalo, Italy, she said, "Papa, I'm dying." In an emergency operation 20 inches of intestine were removed. Afterward a doctor told her father, "She had only 20 more minutes of life."
Five months later she finished fourth in a World Cup giant slalom in Vail, Colo. This season, after training during the summer with La Bomba himself in northern Italy, Compagnoni has had five second-place finishes in World Cup events. On Jan. 26 in Morzine, France, she finally won her first race, a Super G.
Last week she was up against one of the toughest racers in the sport: Carole Merle, 28, who led the World Cup Super G standings last year and was under enormous pressure to win a gold medal for her native France. Merle delivered a dazzling run and stood a seemingly unbeatable .56 of a second ahead of the field after the first seed of 15 racers had gone. Then, out of the 16th start position, came Compagnoni. Her run was as elegant and overpowering as anything Tomba might produce, and she finished 1.41 seconds—an eternity—ahead of Merle.
Compagnoni later declared that this race was only the beginning. "I've been thinking about the giant slalom for three months," she said. "It's my speciality. I'm ready."
The next day she charged the first run of the GS too aggressively, got caught on her inside ski and fell. She tried to rise, screamed with pain and collapsed. This time she had torn her left anterior cruciate ligament. She sobbed helplessly over her star-crossed career—a tiny Italian opera whose latest act was played before millions of TV spectators. One of them was Tomba, who had watched on the television in his hotel room. He phoned Compagnoni later.
"Did I sec the race?" he said to her. "I almost made my hand swell up by hitting a table. When you put your hands to your face and I heard your screams, it twisted my heart. I punched the table. Deborah, two short months and we'll ski a race together." Sadly, early diagnosis indicated it could be six months before Compagnoni is whole again.
Compagnoni's spill in the giant slalom left the door open for the other stirring comeback story. Roffe was a mere moppet of 17 when she won the world championship GS in Bormio, Italy. She hasn't won an international race since that season. At the Calgary Olympics she was 12th in the GS and 15th in the slalom. That, oddly enough, became a turning point in her career.
"After Calgary I grew up," said the 24-year-old Roffe last week. "At first I was actually pleased with my results, because they were better than I had been doing. But when I got home, I looked at myself real closely. Here I was, finishing in the 20's most of the time, in tears half the time, confused, never happy. I said to myself, 'O.K., Diann, how many more years are you going to throw away? Do you really want to keep doing this?'
"I realized that I loved ski racing and that I had a chance to do things other people only dream about. I decided I had to forget that I had been a world champion and just go to work—very, very hard."
Going to work was hardest in 1990, when, after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, Roffe missed most of the 1990-91 World Cup season. This season she has rebounded with five top-five performances in World Cup races. In the Olympic Super G she started first, leaped fiercely onto the course but suddenly fell on a small knoll near the top of the run. She was devastated. "I was skiing for a medal, and I had to take all the chances I could," said Roffe. "But I never choke at big events, and I had real trouble swallowing this. It seemed that everything bad over the past seven years had all turned up in one race."
Her husband, Willi Steinrotter, helped her through the night. "I was so fortunate Willi was here to share this," said Roffe. "He could have overdone the compassion, the sympathy, but he didn't. He just kept his arm around me and said very little."
The next morning Roffe sprang from the start for the first run of the giant slalom just as fiercely as she had the day before, but it was an imperfect effort and she stood a huge 1.15 seconds behind Austria's Ulrike Maier, the leader. In the second run Roffe flew down the course with abandon. "I had no other choice," she said later. "I was so far down, I had nothing to lose." Her total time of 2:13.71 put her at the top of the scoreboard, with eight racers remaining.
Two of them were Roffe's teammates, Julie Parisien, 20, and Eva Twardokens, 26. They also turned in excellent times, and for a moment the leader board was stacked 1-2-3 with Americans. But that lasted only until Anita Wachter of Austria burst down the course. Her two-run total time was, astonishingly, precisely the same as Roffe's, and it thus bumped Twardokens from medal contention. Then Wiberg blew past everyone to win the gold by more than a second, knocking Parisien from the medal chase.
Roffe, triumphant with one of the two silvers, was nearly overcome by emotion. "I have had so darned much bad luck, it just had to be time," she said later. "At the finish Willi and I were both in tears, really heavy sobbing. You don't realize the hours, the years it takes. It was overwhelming, overwhelming."
The next day it looked as if Parisien might produce an equally overwhelming reversal of fortune. She had suffered some terrible pre-Olympic luck. In January she had four teeth knocked out in a collision with a recreational skier in Austria, and three days after that she broke her left wrist at the finish of a race in Italy. She had to wear a face guard and have her wrist, which was still in a cast, taped to her ski pole for each of her Olympic races. Still, after the first run of the slalom, Parisien stood first. Now she had three hours to think about winning in her first Olympics. "Medals—bronze, silver, gold—kept going through my head," she said later. The distracted Parisien put up a very respectable effort and ended up fourth—a scant .05 of a second short of the bronze. Ahead of her by quite a bit more was Kronberger, who earlier had won the combined. The slalom victory came on her 23rd birthday; it was a lovely present.
The final Alpine event of the Alberto-ville Games was, fittingly, the men's slalom, starring the man himself. But Tomba's first run was, for him, awful. Heavy on his skis, uncertain of his way, he finished in sixth place, 1.58 seconds behind the leader, Finn-Christian Jagge, 25, a cool and experienced Norwegian.
Starting 10th in the second run, Tomba gave a performance of the never-to-be-forgotten variety. Descending a course that had been set by his coach, Gustavo Thoeni, Tomba was transformed into an inexorable force of nature. He accelerated in every turn, picked up split seconds in every section and wound up with a total time of 1:44.67. Tomba knew what he had done. In the finish area he collapsed on his back and exulted in the snow.
Every man who was yet to race in the top seed possessed a first-run lead over Tomba. But not one of them came close to beating his combined time—until Jagge. Though he ran a hard, smart, courageous race, he was losing time to Tomba with every yard he skied. When he finally surged across the finish, he had a bare .28 of a second left of his first-run lead. Jagge won the gold medal, while Tomba was left with silver—and a skiing masterpiece that will stand forever.
As La Gazzetta observed, on the slopes of the Alps it was truly a time of "historic and solemn days."