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WINTER OLYMPICS : Tomba Skis First and Best to Win the Giant Slalom

February 26, 1988|BOB LOCHNER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

CALGARY, Canada — In little more than a minute, the race was over. One-hundred-sixteen other skiers tried their skill on the Olympic giant slalom course Friday at Nakiska to no avail, and then they all went back up and tried again.

But after nearly four hours of competition, the winner was the man who led from the start: Alberto Tomba.

There was never much doubt, really, just a faint hope for the others that after winning the first run by more than a full second, the Italian might somehow slip up in the second run.

Not "La Bomba," as he is known from Milan to Palermo. Not with a gold medal waiting, one that he could almost walk down the course to accept.

For the first run, Tomba drew start No. 1, and as he glided through the gates with the same fluid grace and economy of movement that Magic Johnson displays on the Laker break, it was obvious he was going to have a fast time. But just how fast?

The answer came quickly, as racer No. 2 lagged more than 3 1/2 seconds behind Tomba. The next was nearly 2 seconds back, and so on.

Even the still dangerous Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, who will be 32 in three weeks, was more than 4 1/2 seconds slower, and you had to wonder: Doesn't anyone else here know how to ski this mountain?

Finally, with all 15 of the top-seeded racers down the hill on the first run, the leader board looked like this:

1. Alberto Tomba, Italy, 1:03.91.

2. Hubert Strolz, Austria, 1:05.05.

3. Pirmin Zurbriggen, Switzerland, 1:05.57.

The second run? Why bother. Go ahead and break out the Lambrusco and toast "The Bomb" on skis.

The race went on, however, and it soon became time for Strolz, Zurbriggen and the rest to abandon all hope. Tomba put the gold medal out of reach with a time of 1:02.46 on the second course, his total of 2:06.37 beating runner-up Strolz by 1.04 seconds. Zurbriggen, the downhill gold medalist, took the bronze by finishing another .98 to the rear of silver medalist Strolz, who won the gold medal in the combined earlier in these Games.

On the second run, Strolz was actually .10 faster than Tomba, who appeared to be struggling slightly, but the Austrian fell far short of closing the gap.

The race probably marked the end of Zurbriggen's quest for another gold medal. The Swiss skier doesn't figure to finish in the top three of Saturday's slalom here on Mt. Allan, meaning he will likely fly home with a total of two medals--one gold, one bronze.

Tomba, who must also be favored in the slalom, said of his second run: "I skied conservatively. I am not really 'a bomb,' and I am not a beast. But today, I am a very happy man. Thank God, I won."

The "beast" reference was to a report that when he skied across the finish line at Sestriere, Italy, for his first-ever World Cup victory this winter, he screamed, " Sono una bestia ," which translates to "I am a beast."

A few days ago, Tomba also denied that he ever called himself "the new messiah of skiing," adding: "I'm just a normal guy who wins a few times."

If he keeps this up, he's going to wind up just another straight-arrow ski racing champion. There'll be nothing to say about him except that after taking the bronze medal in the giant slalom at the 1987 World Alpine Championships, he has left the World Cup circuit in tatters so far this season by winning seven races--four slaloms and three giant slaloms--to trail Zurbriggen by just six points, 219-213, in the overall standings.

So, where did this guy Tomba come from, in such a hurry?

Well, from near Bologna, for starters. That's flatland Italy, which meant that he and his older brother, Marco, generally had to be driven up to the Apennine Mountains by their father, Marco, when they wanted to go skiing. This took about an hour each way.

The family estate had a hill with a 150-foot vertical drop in its backyard, but it didn't snow much in the Po River Valley, so the two brothers would try to flood the slope with a hose and hope it froze over.

Papa Tomba, a well-to-do textile manufacturer, was a frustrated ski racer himself, so he encouraged his sons to take up the sport, and the family always spent a week or two in the winter at Cortina d'Ampezzo.

According to Alberto, his father thought Marco was more talented as a skier, and the younger brother said: "I learned this from one of my aunts. Although I was hurt at first, it motivated me to work hard and prove him wrong."

Marco eventually gave up competitive skiing to help run the family business, while Alberto soon acquired a reputation as a highly talented skier but an undisciplined, wild-and-crazy guy off the slopes.

Until this season, his third on the national team, Tomba had only that bronze medal to show for his efforts, but he was having fun. He continued to enjoy himself once he started winning races, celebrating his 21st birthday for 48 hours straight on one mid-December World Cup weekend in Yugoslavia.

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