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.
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.