Tomba glimpses glory amid gloom

The alpine World Cup ski season has been something of a nightmare. Bill Scott reports from Bormio on its finale
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The Independent Online
One of the most unfortunate racing seasons in memory limps towards its conclusion with a five-day "climax" in Bormio, Italy, starting today.

Despite having his lead in the World Cup slowly whittled away, Alberto Tomba is clinging to his dream of winning his first overall title in 10 years on the circuit.

Everyone else, though, will be glad to see the back of a disrupted, disorganised and disheartening campaign that has been characterised by lack of winter, too much winter, several serious injuries, political wrangling, and occasionally some racing. Along the way, a drought in southern Spain, the unlikely site of February's World Championships, forced the biennial two-week event to be cancelled.

After four months of on-again, off-again racing, men and women will be competing at the World Cup finals in all four disciplines - downhill, super-giant slalom, giant slalom and slalom - in the isolated Valtellina Valley, northeast of Milan.

Only a tiny percentage of the worldwide competition programme took place on schedule. With a men's programme that dragged skiers from Europe to Japan to North America to Norway and finally to Tomba territory in Bormio in the space of five weeks, minor glitches were certain to develop. Last week downhill training in Kvitfjell, Norway, had to be postponed by a day when ski gear failed to arrive in time from the circuit's previous port of call in Aspen.

A downhill at the Colorado venue on 5 March was called off because of a snowstorm after less than half of the 68-man field had competed but was ruled official by the race jury. The American AJ Kitt was declared the winner but had the victory taken away by the international federation, the FIS. The scenario was repeated in Kvitfjell when Italy's Pietro Vialini was denied a downhill win after fog came down.

In December, men's teams came close to a revolt over a controversial freedom-from-liability document that all racers were required to sign under penalty of disqualification. The Americans threatened to take the FIS to court, believing the release's wording is far from fair. "It says every accident on a course is the racer's fault," Bill Egan, their chief coach, said.

Back on the piste, the final races in Bormio are shaping up as celebration for thousands of fervent Tomba fans arriving to watch their hero compete in a giant slalom on Saturday and a slalom on Sunday.

Despite not racing for the past three weeks, Tomba has stayed ahead of rivals who include the five-times champion Marc Girardelli, of Luxembourg, and Slovenia's Jure Kosir. The has won seven slaloms from eight races, making up the rest of his 10 wins from the giant slalom.

The women's overall title is a three-way struggle between Germany's Katja Seizinger and the Swiss team-mates, Heidi Zeller-Bhler and Vreni Schneider. The American Picabo Street ended discussion about the women's downhill title when she won a fourth event in succession at the weekend in Switzerland.

There will be several absentees. The Swede Thomas Fogdoe ended his career in a freak accident when training at home in February when he crashed into to a tree and suffered potentially paralysing back injuries.

The 24-year-old technical specialist, was a serious rival to the Italian and will be missed in the sport. The American Olympic downhill champion, Tommy Moe, fell in Norway days ago and damaged knee ligaments. Anita Wachter, of Austria, has also suffered knee injuries.