CALGARY, Alberta — There were hands on his shoulders and hands cupped behind his neck and two, three, four hands slapping him lovingly on the head. Bells were ringing. Women were singing.
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 four, five, six hands slapping him loivingly on the head.
” FANTASTICO, ALBERTO!”
Just seconds earlier, he had skied across faster than all the other racers in this Olympic giant slalom. He whisked immediately to the photo pen, as if on appointment, and yanked off his goggles for the cameras. Smile. WHOMP! The photographers bashed down the wall.
He was every hero of every skiing moment. He was swept away, literally, moving in the flow of a small sea of bodies, Italian photographers and Italian newspaper people, who yelled him questions as they bounced along. “How do you feel?” “How did you do it?”
He grinned. He roared. He had done what they had expected him to do, even though what they had expected was remarkable: Only three months after his first World Cup win, Alberto Tomba, just 21, had outskied the world in the world’s biggest pressure cooker. Seven, eight, nine hands slapped him lovingly on the head.
“ALBERTO!” yelled a group of friends from his home town of Bologna.
How quickly had all this started? How easily had he handled that race? He skied the giant slalom course as if he had passed it a note before the competition. Danced around the gates, punched them with a passing shoulder. 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 was the favorite going in, had drawn the No. 1 starting spot as if a No. 1 finish were guranteed. His first run was the fastest by far. His second run was a victory lap. His skis kissed the snow. The snow kissed back. 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. “Thank you!”
“No problem,” he seemed to say. “Let’s see. The white shirt or the blue shirt?”
He was the bad boy made good, a guy who parties the night before races and who waves to people when he gets bored on the way down. Discipline is not for him. Serious is 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 unprecendented World Cup victories. Today, everybody loved the beast.
“EXCUSE ME! EXCUSE ME! LET ME THROUGH!” screamed a man in a blue and white Olympic Committee coat, pushing his way into the mob. He was the official doctor, he said, assigned to monitor Tomba until the doping tests could be conducted. “I just have to watch him wherever he goes. Make sure he doesn’t dp anything wrong. It took me this long to get close to him.”
So now the party had a doctor, and five more photographers, and three more security guards and two kids who just sort of snuck in. Tomba fluffed his curly brown hair and grinnned. Thirteen, 14, 15, hands slapped him lovingly on the head.
“Did you speak with your mother?” an Italian TV reporter asked.
“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. Ciao, Alberto. He was Elvis on the Louisiana hayride. John and Paul on their first trip to America. Somewhere in the finish area stood Pirmin Zurbriggen, the Swiss hero. And Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish hero. And Herbert Stolz, the Austrian 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 now in history. He will not stop skiing. He has another race, the slalom, on Saturday, and more world titles and more World Cups. But he would never have the one moment like this.
“Tell us how happy you are!” asked another Italian TV reporter.
“I was so happy, there were tears in my eyes when I crossed the line,” he said.
“Grazie, Alberto,” said the reporter. And he grabbed the skier and kissed him.
Kissed him? The reporter? Ciao, Alberto. Fantastico, Alberto.
“What do you think of Tomba?” someone asked Andreas Wenzel, a top ski racer from Leichtenstein. Wenzel had finshed sixth, and was standing near the fences alone.
“Tomba? . . . ” he began. He watched the group pass, the hero on its shoulders now, as 20, 30, 40 hands slapped him lovingly on the back of the head. “Tomba is a happy guy.”