Winter Olympics / Alpine Skiing: Tomba in pursuit of hat-trick: The Italian skier with the rock star following stands out among his contemporaries. Bill Scott reports

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THE sting of Lillehammer's bitter cold should be thawed by hot competition as Alpine ski racing at the Winter Olympics begins at the weekend, just two short years after the closing ceremonies at Albertville.

The International Olympic Committee's decision to stagger the Winter and Summer Olympics on to separate four-year cycles has been a godsend for some athletes who might have been inclined to have hung up their gear had the next round of winter racing not been pushed forward two years.

The leading competitors will forget all about temperatures which have been touching -15C in Lillehammer, the village north of Oslo that will blossom into a small city for the duration of the Olympics.

Alberto Tomba of Italy, the burly defending downhill champion, Patrick Ortlieb from Austria, the revitalised Vreni Schneider of Switzerland, Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden, and Deborah Compagnoni of Italy will certainly be names to watch. All but Schneider, who slumped two years ago in France but leads Wiberg by a single point in the overall World Cup table, have medals to defend. And short-odds contenders like the five-times cup winner, Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg, Gunther Mader of Austria, and the host Norwegians led by super-giant slalom gold medallist Kjetil Aamodt, can be expected to fight hard for a slice of the glory.

Olympic schedulers have wasted little time in cutting to the chase. The blue-riband men's downhill is on Sunday, with Ortlieb, Franz Heinzer, Daniel Mahrer and the Wengen winner, William Besse, all from Switzerland, plus Atle Skaardal, of Norway, and the multi-talented Frenchman Franck Piccard expected to be in the running for medals. The race at Kvitfjell, 20km from the city, will get the Games off to a high-profile start.

For ski fans, Lillehammer will be a two-week festival of near-solid Alpine racing - only four of the Games' 16 days have no skiing. Week One will feature the women's and men's super-giant slaloms, capped by the women's downhill on the first Saturday.

The date will be a particularly poignant one, as it will fall exactly three weeks since the death of the Austrian double world champion, Ulrike Maier, in a race crash at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, during a World Cup tune-up race. The grief- stricken Austrian women skipped the final leg of World Cup racing last week in Spain, understandably preferring to attend Maier's funeral and try to get over the shock.

Particularly hard-hit was Kerrin Lee-Gartner, the Canadian downhill gold medalist from 1992. She flew home after the death of Maier, one of her best friends on the circuit, and spent last week debating her Olympic future. Canadian officials have confirmed Lee- Gartner will defend her medal, but the skier is said to be nursing doubts about continuing in the dangerous sport.

All eyes - even of those with only marginal interest in racing - will be on Tomba during the closing week at Lillehammer. That is when the 27-year-old with a lock- hold on charisma in a sport populated by grey, if competent, figures, will have his day.

Actually, he will have two of them. The treble gold medallist will get the chance to create Alpine history on Wednesday, 23 February in the giant slalom. Tomba claimed victory in 1988 and 1992 and if he completes a hat-trick, will become the first man to achieve the honour of three titles in a row. On the closing Sunday, the personable Italian with the rock-star following competes in the final Alpine event, the slalom. A gold there - he was pipped for it by 0.28sec by the Finn Christian Jagge in 1992 - would also do nicely. The title in this event would still make the Italian the only man to win Alpine gold medals in three consecutive Games, albeit not in the same speciality.

'There are a few weeks until 23 February,' Tomba said last weekend in Garmisch as he polished his form with a second World Cup slalom win in eight days. 'My goal is to be ready for an Olympic medal, hopefully a gold one. Right now, my slalom form is better than my giant slalom, but there is a lot of hard work to be done in the interim. I must be ready to race.'

British team: Graham Bell, Martin Bell, Emma Carrick-Anderson, Claire de Pourtales, Bill Gaylord, Spenser Pession.

(Photograph omitted)