Weaver of a golden legend

CLOSE-UP Alberto Tomba The Italian city slicker who conquered the mountains has won his first world championship. Simon O'Hagan reports
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IN 1988, just after he had won gold medals in both the the slalom and giant slalom at the Calgary Olympic Games, Alberto Tomba returned to Sestola in his native Italy, where he had agreed to take part in a series of non-World Cup races, mainly to give his adoring public a chance to hail their new hero.

A huge crowd was drawn to the Appenine resort, where among Tomba's rivals was Martin Bell, then one of Britain's leading skiers. "There were more people than you get for some World Cup races," Bell recalled last week. Two races took place over the weekend, each comprising two runs.

"In the first run in the first race, Tomba was sixth," Bell said. "The rumours were he'd been up all night, and he didn't bother to ski the second run. The next day he came back and was obviously a bit more in the mood. He won by about two and a half seconds and was waving to people on the way down."

Such stories are typical of the man whose magnetism is as great as any skier's in history and who on Friday added another layer to the myth that surrounds him when finally, at 29, he won a world championship gold medal at his fifth attempt. Thrillingly locked into the racer's eternal conflict between control and abandon as he did battle with the course in the Sierra Nevada, Tomba surged to victory in the giant slalom, the event that had appeared to offer him a smaller chance of glory than the slalom event in which he competes today.

As he spun to a halt and looked up to see that he had overhauled the time of Urs Kaelin of Switzerland by 0.44 of a second, Tomba pointed to the sky with both hands and was immediately at one with the thousands who had trekked up the mountain to witness the finest sight in skiing. And unless he has spent the weekend partying his way to oblivion - a possibility that cannot be ruled out - a second gold medal is surely his for the taking.

The kind of identification so many people feel with Tomba is perhaps surprising given his background as the son of a millionaire Bologna industrialist whose privileged upbringing enabled him to go skiing whenever he wanted without the attendant concern of what he would have to do when he grew up.

But in his appetite for life - fast cars and beautiful women are inevitable accoutrements for this most unashamed of playboys - "La Bomba" strikes a chord with anyone who prefers their sporting heroes not to shed themselves of all trace of personality in their pursuit of the highest goals. And in a sport whose typical practitioners are strong, silent types who have grown up in a little village at the end of the valley, Tomba has proved that coming from the city need not put a would-be skier at a disadvantage.

Perhaps it has helped Tomba that he has been able to regard his career more as an indulgence than a profession, and there are certainly some seasons when he trains harder than others. But no skier wins three Olympic golds, two silvers, and now a world championship gold merely by looking decorative on the slopes. Last year, in spite of only skiing in two of the four disciplines, he was successful enough to be the overall World Cup winner. His record of 46 victories in World Cup races puts him second on the all-time list, behind the only slalomer who outranks him - Ingemar Stenmark, of Sweden. "In a way I admire him all the more because of his background," says Nick Fellows, the former British slalom champion.

Tomba made his breakthrough at the 1987 world championships in Crans- Montana when he won a giant slalom bronze. Then came his Calgary triumph and his reputation was assured. Unusually big for a slalomer - 6ft and 13st - he revolutionised the discipline in the late 1980s, eliminating the so-called "skating step", keeping both skis together as he made the transition between two turns. "At the time everyone thought it must be slower," Bell said. "But the way he did it with smooth turns and a lot of acceleration he proved it could be quicker. Now everybody does it."

The result is that Tomba has one of the most distinctive and appealing styles in skiing, characterised by an unmistakable sway and bounce. Much of the credit for Tomba's method must go to his coach, Gustavo Thoeni, who was the last Italian before Tomba to win the world giant slalom title, in 1974. They have been together since 1986, although the numbers attending upon Tomba have swelled over the years to include a physical trainer, a bodyguard, a masseur, a kitman and a business manager.

Although Tomba clearly revels in his status and even talks about himself in the third person, he remains popular. "Everyone takes an understanding attitude," says Bell, who still remembers with amusement the time Tomba walked into the same gym in Canada and, wearing only trunks, picked up a couple of hand weights and began preening himself in front of the mirror.

As for Tomba's avoidance of the downhill, that is more of an issue with fans than skiers. "Entirely understandable," Bell says. "There are lots of slalom specialists who never do downhill. Once he'd got to his early twenties without doing it he was never likely to. In any case, there is a tradition of slalom in Italy."

If Tomba is bigger than the sport, then it is a situation it can probably live with. The recession has hit skiing hard recently, and Tomba, along with the all-rounder Marc Girardelli, has been a key figure in helping keep sponsors interested.

There have been inevitable controversies. He was once banned after having a shoving match with an official in Canada. He got into trouble for saying that the choice of Spain for this year's world championships "would be like skiing in Morocco". In December he allegedly threw a trophy at a photographer whom he suspected had sold nude pictures of the younger Tomba to a magazine. A member of the carabinieri, Tomba found himself under police investigation.

More searching inquiries concern Tomba's future. Last week he played dumb when asked if it was true that he had already signed up to compete in next year's world championships in Sestriere, the Italian resort which contains a lot of Tomba history. The day when Tomba retires cannot be far off, and he has spoken of how tough it is to keep up with the sport's physical demands. This weekend, though, Tomba surely isn't feeling any pain.

Superstars of the slopes

Jean-Claude Killy

1968 is a resonant year in French history, not least because of Killy's achievement at the Grenoble Olympics where he won all three skiing golds, in downhill, giant slalom and slalom. A cultural icon to rank with Brigitte Bardot, the elegant Killy was appointed a member of the Legion d'Honneur by President De Gaulle and went on to become the sport's first millionaire.

Franz Klammer

Austrian colossus of the downhill whose surge to gold in the Innsbruck Winter Olympics of 1976 is perhaps the most enduring moment in the history of the sport. Last of the top seeds to race, he was roared home after trailing the 1972 champion Bernhard Russi. He was world champion five times and is regarded throughout skiing as the best ever in the discipline.

Ingemark Stenmark

Bigger in his native Sweden even than his contemporary Bjorn Borg, the equally retiring Stenmark holds the record for World Cup victories with 86. Unmatched in the slalom, he was overall World Cup winner in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Slalom champion eight times, giant slalom champion seven times, he won both events at the 1978 world championships and 1980 Olympics.

Pirmin Zurbriggen

Swiss hero in the 1980s who was overall World Cup winner four times and rare in his mastery of three disciplines. In downhill he was Olympic champion In 1988, world champion in 1985 and World Cup winner in 1987 and 1988. In giant slalom he was 1987 world champion and World Cup winner. In Super- G he was world champion in 1987 and World Cup winner from 1987 to 1990.