Winter Olympics: Tomba joins rush to laud Maier's show

AS Alberto Tomba, double Olympic gold medallist in the giant slalom, slid out of contention on his backside early in yesterday's first run of the giant slalom, it felt like the end of an era.

"I flew like Maier," said Tomba, referring to the spectacular fall which the man who has replaced him as the highest profile Alpine skier, Hermann Maier, had suffered during the downhill event 11 days earlier.

But the truth was that the 31-year-old Italian was not able to match the young Austrian, even in terms of falling. While Maier's death-defying tumble was sufficient to require his mother to be sedated, Tomba's was a simple slide out of contention.

The 26-year-old Austrian earned his second gold of the Games as he finished nearly half a second clear of his nearest challenger, the fellow Austrian Stefan Eberharter.

For Maier, these Games are over. He will holiday for five days on the island of Guam before continuing with the World Cup season in which he is virtually certain to end up as overall champion.

For Tomba, there is only the consideration of how to play out the end of an illustrious career. Assuming he recovers from the bruising to his lower back which he suffered in his fall, he plans to bring an end to an Olympic career which began at the 1988 Games with an appearance in tomorrow's slalom event.

Tomba's reputation as a playboy precedes him, and when he arrived in Nagano last week he was full of his plans to find the woman in his life - "I think I see her here" he said, peering into the amphitheatre full of journalists.

"Your style changes as you get older," he said. "When I was younger I skied a lot faster. I was much more reckless. Nowadays I am making plans for my future after skiing. I hope my future will always be in the sport."

There are hints of offers to pursue a film career. There are rumours of tax problems. Nothing is certain - other than the fact that Tomba, who plans to carry on competing until next year's World Championships in Vail, realises that the future, in the shape of Hermann Maier, has arrived.

After finishing 2.44sec behind the Austrian in a race at Saalbach earlier this year, Tomba spoke in approving fashion of his young rival.

"He reminds me of myself 10 years ago," Tomba said. "He skis aggressively, and he has a strong, independent mind." Yesterday Maier's girlfriend, Petra Wechselberger, described the singleminded way in which Maier has devoted himself to training in the last two years.

Even though his startling performances have meant he has been welcomed back into the Austrian team programme, from which he was dropped as a relatively puny 15-year-old, Maier has spent many hours training on his own, riding an exercise bicycle, working weights, and skiing every day.

Now that he is established as a world star, his earning capacity has been increased through the fact that, unlike most of the Austrians, he can speak English - a product of his years spent working as a ski instructor on the slopes of his native Flachau.

These have been Maier's Games. After the traumatic fall in the opening weekend's downhill, the predictions made for him have been fulfilled. As he moved genially down the line of television interviews at the finishing area yesterday, tossing his lion-like mane of hair, this was an athlete who had well and truly arrived.

Britain's short-track speed skaters, in contrast, were athletes who had well and truly departed after last night's action, when Nicky Gooch, bronze medallist in the Olympic 500 metres four years ago, was knocked out in the opening heat of this year's event, soon to be joined by the other individual choice, Matt Jasper.

To complete Britain's disappointing night, the relay team were knocked out of the 5,000 metres semi-final, finishing half a lap behind Canada and China.

Jasper, handicapped by a stumble at the start, managed to recover to third in his heat - one place below what was required, although he was later disqualified.

But for Gooch, who had a disastrous World Championships in the same White Ring arena last year, these Games - for which his preparations have been disrupted by a chest infection - have been the stuff of nightmares. His fortunes last night, when he slid out of contention after moving up into the second qualifying place in his heat, said everything about these Olympics as far as he was concerned.