NAKISKA, Alberta — There were hands around his waist, hands grabbing his neck and two, three, four hands slapping him on the head.
He waved. He laughed. He pointed playfully to the No. 1 on his racing bib. There were Italian flags behind him and Italian flags in front of him, and five, six, seven hands slapping him on the head.
Just seconds earlier, he had skied across the finish, the winner in Thursday’s Olympic giant slalom. He whisked immediately to the photo pen, as if late for an appointment, yanked off his goggles and smiled for the cameras. The photographers got so excited, they bashed down the wall.
He was every hero of every skiing moment. The gold medalist, swept away, literally, in a sea of bodies. Italian photographers and Italian newspaper people yelled questions and congratulations to him as they bounced along. Some of them kissed him.
He was cool. He had done what they had expected him to do, even though what they’d expected was remarkable: Only three months after his first World Cup victory, Alberto Tomba, just 21, had outskied the world in the world’s biggest pressure cooker. Eight, nine, ten hands slapped him on the head.
“ALBERTO!” sang a group of friends from his hometown of Bologna.
Red wine for everybody.
How quickly had all this happened? How easily had Tomba handled the challenge? He sped down the twisting Mount Allan course. His skis kissed the snow; the snow kissed back. He greased around 48 gates, no problem, no sweat. With each turn he seemed to say: “Let me see. What shall I wear to the party tonight? The long coat or the short coat?”
He won as if destiny was in his bindings. He even drew the No. 1 starting spot. His combined time of 2:06.37 was more than a second faster than the next closest guy.
“GRAZIE, TOMBA!” read a sign at the finish line.
“Prego,” he seemed to say. “Let’s see. The white shirt or the blue shirt?”
Here was the bad boy made good, a guy who parties the night before races and who waves to fans when he gets bored on the way down a course. Discipline? Not for him. Serious? Not for him. He was born into a strong, stocky body and a face that could steal cookies off the plate. “I am a beast!” he once declared during a string of unprecedented World Cup victories. Today everybody loved the beast.
Suddenly all the stories were coming out. There was the one about his drinking in the pub with reporters, and the one about his father promising to buy him a Ferrari if he won a gold medal. There was the time that Tomba
(nicknamed “La Bomba” or “The Bomb”) told someone he could go so fast in the slalom event he’d have time to kiss girls on the way down — and still win. There were stories. Lots of stories.
“ALBERTO!” screamed a radio guy.
“TOMBA!” screamed a TV guy.
“EXCUSE ME! EXCUSE ME! LET ME THROUGH!” hollered a man in a blue-and-white Olympic committee coat. He was the official doctor assigned to Tomba until the drug tests could be conducted. “I have to watch him wherever he goes. It took me this long to get to him!”
The mob opened momentarily, swallowed the doctor, then closed again. And on it went, moving up stairs, down ramps, into the finish area and out of the finish area again, growing with bodies like a snowball rolling down a hill. There were hands on Tomba’s waist and hands on Tomba’s elbows. There were photographers and reporters and security guards and concession workers and young women in purple ski jackets just trying to get a peek.
“Alberto! Did you speak with your mother?” an Italian TV reporter asked, jumping over a low fence to get to him.
“Yes,” he answered. “She said there is a big crowd of people at the gate of our house in Italy, and she doesn’t want to let them in. But now she thinks she will let them all in and have a big party!”
Perfect. Why not? Party there. Party here. Hey, Alberto. Fantastico, Alberto. Here was Elvis in the early days. John and Paul on their first trip to America. Somewhere in the finish area stood Pirmin Zurbriggen, the Swiss ski hero. And Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish ski hero. And Hubert Strolz, the Austrian ski hero. Each is considered a master in this event.
Tomba had beaten them all.
“I am so happy, I can even stop skiing now!” he said. “Once you have a gold medal, you are in history.”
He was in history. He will not stop skiing. He has another race, the slalom Saturday, and world titles and more World Cups. Years more, perhaps.
But he would never have a moment like this. His first medal. Gold. All the lone wolves and all the late-nighters and all the dancers and drinkers were falling in line, happy to see that fun still had a place in the Winter Olympics. This was fun. Red wine for everybody.
“Everything I do today, I do for the people of Italy,” said Tomba, flashing all his teeth.
“Grazie, Alberto,” said the reporter. And he grabbed the skier and kissed him.
There would be other races, other places, other medals and other faces. Thursday, on Mount Allan, at the bottom of the giant slalom course, there was only one, bobbing along, the doctor alongside him. As they passed a group of attractive young blondes, Alberto Tomba rolled his eyes.
“Eight o’clock?” he seemed to say, and they seemed to say, “Sure.”
CUTLINE Pirmin Zurbriggen (above) didn’t seem too happy with a bronze. Alberto Tomba’s celebration was as noteworthy as his skiing.