Winter Olympics / Slalom: Tomba seeks unique treble

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

WHEN Alberto Tomba learnt last weekend of an influenza outbreak in the Olympic athletes' village, the Italian skier decided not to take any risks with his attempt to secure a place in Alpine racing history. In a matter of hours, the treble gold medallist, his ski technician, coaches, physiotherapist and manager had relocated to a rented house just a few hundred metres from the piste here.

Well-meaning and lofty ideals of living together with other competitors and undergoing the 'Olympic experience' were put aside. Tomba and his handlers know exactly the purpose of his visit to Norway and they will not allow anything to interfere with their preparations.

Today's men's slalom offers a chance for the 27-year-old from the suburbs of Bologna to make his mark in the Olympic record books. Although Tomba missed a gate in the second leg of Wednesday's giant slalom - the first Olympic race that he has failed to complete - he is still poised to become the first man to win three Alpine titles in successive Games if he wins the gold medal this afternoon in the closing slalom race.

The cycle of success began in Calgary, in 1988, with double victories in the giant slalom and slalom disciplines and continued four years later with a gold in the giant slalom and a silver in the slalom at Albertville.

Worries about health in these Games are well-founded, and add to the pressure. Last winter in Morioka-Shizukuishi, Japan, Tomba suffered from a virus which wrecked his carefully laid plans and severely curtailed the typically robust, physical style of the 92-kilogram racer. He missed the giant slalom through illness and went out in the first leg of the slalom.

The attention of the world's press is another source of pressure. Less than 48 hours after arriving last week, he was called to a press conference in the main Olympic press centre.

With a career which has flowered at the Olympics in even-numbered years but failed to bloom in the odd-numbered ones of the World Championships, Tomba needs no reminding that 1994 should be his for the asking. But he will make only one prediction: 'In the Olympics it is not easy to win gold three times in a row.'

Tomba and his coaches went to work soon after Wednesday's giant slalom disappointment. 'Just let me have some peace and leave it to me for Sunday,' Tomba said.

The Tomba camp has been through too many leading events to suffer too much from nerves, but emotions heading into the final race of the Games with so much riding on the outcome are stretched to the limit.

'With Alberto, we cannot make a mistake; this is the Olympics,' Silvio Cotti, his physiotherapist, said. 'Last summer Alberto was thinking a lot about his two races here. He is calm, extraordinarily calm. We are the ones in a frenzy, but we try and not show it too much.'

Cotti said that stress can easily affect performance on the day - something that Tomba cannot afford. 'When an athlete is tense, you can feel it when you massage,' Cotti said. 'Alberto is truly at peace. I only have to make sure that I don't transmit my stress to him.'

The ski technician Arturo Maiolani has been with the racer since the start of his career. 'It was the easiest for everyone at Calgary,' he said. 'There, Alberto had nothing to lose. Here, everyone knows that only a gold medal will do. We all feel united right now.'

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