REPORTER: “Why did you arrive by helicopter?”

TOMBA: “Because everyone else drove.”

VAL D’ISERE, France — When we last left Alberto Tomba, he was riding a mob of happy, singing Italians at the bottom of an Olympic slalom in Canada. They yelled his name. They kissed his curls. Reporters asked questions, then hugged him when he answered.

“Alberto!” sang the chorus. “Fantastico, Alberto!”

Now here he was, four years later, at the bottom of an Olympic course in the French Alps, and the picture was the same. They leapt over fences. They screamed as he passed. Reporters fought police who fought fans who fought police, all so they could get close enough to pat his head or kiss his cheek.

“Alberto! Grazie, Alberto!”

He came. He saw. He skied. He took a bow. Such is life for Alberto Tomba, who, at 21, was the baby bombshell of the Calgary games and at 25, is the closest thing to God on skis. At least the Italians think so. How many busloads of worshiping fans did they send to this mountain — from Bologna, Pisa, Val Gardenia — just to wave banners and sing songs and watch him shake up history? Three Olympic races? Three gold medals?

“Alberto! Alber–“

Wait. The mob was stirring. Police, photographers, TV cameras, groupies in hot pink ski suits — what was this? Alberto was down! Alberto was down! Had he fainted?

“Alberto! Alberto? . . . “

His coach held his arms out, his bodyguard shoved everyone back. But they were not concerned. Like sidemen for soul king James Brown, they knew this was part of the Big Man’s show: Here, in the middle of the mountains, Alberto Tomba was on his knees, face down, kissing the snow.

Kissing the snow?

Mmmmmmmmmwah!

“Alberto! Si, Alberto!”

Had Tomba been an actor, he would have been Tom Cruise. Had he been a football player, he would have been Joe Namath. Yes, there is marvelous talent in those tree-like thighs, the limbs that enable him to whisk through slalom and giant slalom courses as if he were dismantling them rather than skiing them, whacking each gate as he rips past. But other skiers have talent.

What Tomba has is brio, bravado, braggadocio — and a lot of other words that end in o. Only a certain kind of guy arrives for the Olympics by helicopter, then turns his ski race into the Super Bowl. Only a certain kind of guy can say, at different moments, “I AM A BEAST!” (after a victory); “I AM THE MESSIAH OF SKIING!” (another victory); “If I race you and I beat you, will you go away and leave me alone?” (to a teammate who wanted to train with him); and “Normally, I party with three girls until 5 a.m., but at the Olympic village, I will change my ways: I will party with five girls until 3 a.m.”

Ego? Is that an o-word?

You bet. And that’s what makes him great. That, and speed. Consider this: On Tuesday afternoon, in the cold French sunshine, Tomba stood atop the giant slalom course, about to launch his final run, and the last words he heard would have unnerved most skiers: “Girardelli did a 1:02.6.”

It was Marc Girardelli, from Luxembourg, the former World Cup champion, who had just finished his run. The time was excellent. Best of the day. Impossible to beat — unless you’re a fellow who calls his mother on a cellular phone minutes before your Olympic race and tells her, “Watch me on TV. I am great today!”

Which Tomba once did. I kid you not.

So it was no shock when he blitzed down the hill, made up the deficit and came across the line with glory on his face, winning the gold, becoming the first Alpine skier to win the same event in two Olympics. Never mind the up-and-down years he had between ’84 and ’88. Never mind the weight he put on, or the seminude hot tub photos, or the passes he made at Katarina Witt, Princess Stephanie, Brooke Shields. Was this the Olympics? Was he winning again?

Any more dumb questions?

“Alberto! Forza, Alberto!”

He popped off his skis, stuck them into the snow, and dropped to his knees between them, as if in a chapel. He said a little prayer. The crowd went nuts. He smiled.

As James Brown would say, “Lemme kiss myself!”

“What did you eat? How will you celebrate? When will you shave your whiskers?” reporters asked afterward, questions befitting a skier/idol/millionaire.

“Chocolate . . . a small party . . . maybe this week . . . ” he answered.

“Can you win the slalom? . . . Will you make a movie?”

“I can win, for sure. . . . Yes, maybe I make movie.”

The questions came. The questions went. He laughed and rubbed his beard and winked and said he was tired. The Italian reporters nodded. He is tired! He is tired! In Italy, Tomba’s words, his love life, even his boyish pranks are not only tolerated by the media, they are cherished. I asked a reporter from Il Giorno why this was, and he said: “In Italy, we have no man who says,
‘I will win,’ and then he wins. Tomba is the only one.”

“Is he as big as the pope?”

“Ha!” the man said. “He is much bigger!”

Bigger than the pope?

And the Big Man had to go. Back to the crowds. Back to the lovefest. They waited for him. They swallowed him up. They sang and cheered and carried him off on their shoulders as they have done now in Calgary, Alberto, and in Alberto-ville, France. Who knows? They may do it again Saturday in the slalom and again in Lillehammer, 1994. He is the Soul Man of skiing, three Olympic races, three gold medals, a world of his own, and a legend that gets bigger and bigger: He came, he saw, he flew down the mountain. Everyone else drove.

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