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MASTER OF THE MOUNTAIN
William Oscar Johnson
March 07, 1988
Alberto Tomba, the bon vivant of Calgary, won two gold medals
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March 07, 1988

Master Of The Mountain

Alberto Tomba, the bon vivant of Calgary, won two gold medals

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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 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' 11�" 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."

Ever?

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