Skiing: Palliative power of Tomba's golden touch: Although the World Cup circuit is beset with problems, its leading light still shines intensely. Bill Scott reports from Val d'Isere

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WINTER OLYMPICS: Lillehammer, Nor, 12-27 February.

THE soothing balm of the 'Tomba effect' is currently papering over some of the cracks appearing in the foundation of the World Cup circuit as competition switches from North America to Europe this weekend.

When the treble Olympic champion Alberto Tomba races, much of the sporting world pauses - even if just momentarily in front of a television screen - to watch the smooth, powerful Italian work his unique magic between the slalom or giant slalom gates. It happened last weekend in Canada, when the 26-year- old earned his first slalom victory in

almost a year at Stoneham near Quebec - the 30th World Cup win of his career.

It could happen again on Monday, in a giant slalom at Val d'Isere, France, following the season's opening men's downhill today.

Even when he fails to win, Tomba is never short of a quote or a gripe. The Italian winter sports press has travelled the world for six years riding on his coat-tails. Three national sport dailies make a meal of Tomba from start to finish of the ski season and keep up with his doings over the summer. Without Tomba gossip - true or untrue - the sport would be as blank as a field of

untracked powder.

In the industry, Tomba's ups and downs are eagerly followed. Huge sponsorship contracts for skis, boots, poles, bindings, goggles, clothing, yoghurt, cars and sunglasses ride upon his success. When he falters, the ski industry shakes to its tender financial roots. What Tomba uses is what much of the public wants to buy.

To put it bluntly: Tomba continues to serve as the saviour of the World Cup, a four-month winter grind which many believe is heading downhill as fast as any racer. Television ratings for both men's and women's events are modest, with brief, predictable upsurges in honour of the Olympics, the next edition of which will be staged in February at Lillehammer, north of Olso.

Organisation and scheduling,

under fire for much of the circuit's quarter-of-a-century life from coaches, racers and international federations, are best described as chaotic, with furious drives across the Alps to meet race schedules. Next week is a good example. Racing is on Monday in France, Tuesday in Sestriere, Italy, then a downhill and

giant slalom at the weekend in the Italian Dolomites. Tomba, who only competes in two of four specialities, will make two transfers by helicopter.

Over the past several seasons, discontent with the status quo has been voiced from several quarters, including the equipment manufacturer's group, International Racing Teams. The organisation claims an annual investment of dollars 50m ( pounds 35m) in the form of travelling technical support for national teams, free gear for racers and numerous sponsorship contracts. For the past year, IRT officials have been asking the Swiss-based International Ski Federation (FIS) for changes: a more rational competition schedule, no Monday races and a short, sharp, focused season.

One proposal would create an

autumn glacier World Cup with a titleholder and a December-January World Cup with a champion

declared before the Olympics or world championships, which are traditionally staged in February. March would be out since attendance and viewers historically drop off in spring as the Cup limps to a finish.

By late March, 1994, date of the season's World Cup finals, the public on both sides of the Atlantic will have likely moved on to spring sports.

IRT has said that it will consider a breakaway circit offering prize- money in the dollars 100,000 per race range, which could begin as early as next autumn. Realistic cash prizes in the sport are now hit-or-miss. Several seasons ago, the American federation started the money snowball rolling by offering dollars 50,000 purses for races in Park City, Utah.

The FIS now requires race organisers to guarantee a minimum prize for the top three finishers. The total is 1.75m Swiss francs ( pounds 800,000) for men this season, around half that for women. In 1991, Tomba scooped a record haul in Park City which still stands: around pounds 30,000 for two

victories. That is pocket change to Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras or Paul Gascoigne.

As well as financial and organisational problems, the weather can play havoc with race dates, wiping them out at short notice as occurred last weekend in Canada when fog forced cancellation of a giant slalom.

Perhaps worst of all, however, personality is a rare commodity. To much of the viewing public, ski racers are flying helmets plastered with adverts. The man or woman under the goggles is hard to find.

Yet in the midst of crisis, there is Tomba, the city boy from Bologna starring in a world populated by

alpine montanari (mountain folk), the pasta gourmet who sometimes struggles to hold the line at 90 kilograms, the public figure and dollar millionaire. In tennis or Formula One racing there are perhaps a couple of Tombas. In football there are a handful. In ski racing, there is only one.

Ever since 1987-88 when he won a string of five technical races to start the season and went on to claim Olympic golds at Calgary in slalom and giant slalom, Tomba has been hailed as a personality. His third Olympic gold iced the cake in 1992. With Tomba winning races in the Olympic build-up the World Cup can struggle by.

The rest of the field, while adequate skiers, are no match for the drawing power of the big Italian. Marc Girardelli, for example, has won five overall titles, more than any other, but he is best described as a

recluse and the sum total of his public pronouncements would not fill a comic book. Although off to a poor start this season, he is not disappointed. 'I've only started off fast during one season,' said the 30-year- old. 'There's a long way to go.'

Kjetil Aamodt, 22, the double world champion, is Norway's rising star. But early nights are more his style than pressing the flesh at a sponsor banquet or signing autographs for the masses - were they there to greet him.

This weekend at Val d'Isere, the classic European season men's opener, will be important. The

resort, one of the so-called 'Big Five' group, is offering a prize package of Sfr100,000 ( pounds 45,000) for the top finishers in two weekend races. Speed specialists have had to wait ever since the season began in late October to get their chance. Now, on the artificial snow, they will get their chance. In the season of the Olympics, at least some of the world will be watching.

WORLD CUP MEN: December: 11-13: Val d'Isere, Fr; downhill, super-G, giant slalom. 14: Sestriere, It; slalom. 18: Val Gardena, It; downhill. 19: Alta Badia, It; giant slalom. 20: Madonna di Camp, It; slalom. 22 Lech, Aut; super-G. 29: Bormio, It; downhill. January: 6: Saalbach, Aut; downhill. 8-9 Kranjskagora, Slov; slalom, giant slalom. 11: Hinterstoder, Aut; giant slalom. 15-16: Kitzbuhel, Aut; downhill, slalom, combined. 18: Adelboden, Swit; giant slalom. 22-23: Wengen, Swit; downhill, super-G. 29- 30: Chamonix, Fr; downhill, slalom, combined. February: 5-6: Garmisch-P, Ger; downhill, slalom. March: 5-6: Aspen, US; downhill, giant slalom. 12-13: Whistler, Can; downhill, super-G. 17-20: Finals: Vail, US; downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G.

WOMEN: December: 11-13: Veysonnaz, Swit; giant slalom, slalom. 17-19: St Anton, Aut; two downhill, slalom, combined. 21: Flachau, Aut; super-G. 22: Berchtesgaden, Ger; slalom. January: 5-6: Morzine, France; slalom, giant slalom. 8-9: Altenmarkt, Aut; slalom, super-G. 14-16: Cortina, It; downhill, giant slalom, super-G. 22-23: Maribor, Slov; slalom, giant slalom. 29-30: Garmisch-P, Ger; downhill, super- G. February: 4-6: Sierra Nevada, Sp; downhill, slalom, super-G, combined. March: 5-6: Whistler, Can; two downhill. 9-10: March Mammouth, US; Super G, slalom. 17-20: Finals: Vail, US; downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G.

(Photograph omitted)