For thirteen years, Alberto Tomba was the face of skiing. He was known as much for his off-the-slopes carousing and womanizing and for his outrageous comments as he was for his skiing, but his on-the-slopes prowess alone would have been enough to win him a place in skiing history. Over the course of his career he won fifty World Cup skiing events, thirty-five in slalom and fifteen in giant slalom. He also became the first skier ever to successfully defend an Olympic title, winning gold medals in slalom in two successive Winter Games, and the first to medal in three successive Olympic games. A taller, heavier, and more powerful slalomer than those who came before, Tomba revolutionized the style of slalom skiing. Instead of letting his skis come apart in the "skating step" between turns, Tomba kept them tight together, creating smoother turns. This style of slaloming has since been adopted by many current champions.
"I am the new messiah of skiing!"
Tomba blasted onto the skiing scene, going from virtual unknown to Olympic champion in only a few months. He won his first World Cup event, at Sestriere, Italy, in November of 1987, and went on to win the next four races straight. He lost his sixth race of the season, a giant slalom, after spending two days raucously celebrating
his twenty-first birthday, but after continuing the celebration for a third night he came back to win the slalom.
From the beginning, Tomba was known for his eccentricity. At the world skiing championships in 1987, where Tomba won a bronze medal in the giant slalom, he earned extra money by washing cars between races—despite the fact that his family was extremely wealthy. That eccentricity blossomed into flamboyance as Tomba began winning in the 1987-88 season. He shouted "Sono una bestia!" ("I am a beast!") as he crossed the finish line in Sestriere. In Madonna di Campiglio, where he achieved his fourth victory of the 1987-88 season, his cry was "I am the new messiah of skiing!" At the end of one race, he cheerfully autographed several female fans' bottoms. (They were wearing ski pants at the time.) "I'm considered the clown of my team because I cannot be serious for two minutes," Tomba told Bruce Newman of Sports Illustrated shortly before the 1988 Winter Olympics. "I'm afraid if I become more serious I will stop winning. Maybe I will learn not to say bad words in the future, but that is the best to be hoped for." Certainly, it was too much to be hoped for that Tomba might be well-behaved at the Olympic training camp in the Canadian Rockies, where he slipped ice cubes down people's shirts and launched spitballs at meals.
Tomba's reputation, for skiing prowess and for outrageous behavior, only grew at the 1988 Calgary, Alberta Olympics. Early on, he predicted that he would win the slalom and giant slalom races. He did indeed win both of them—the giant slalom by the unheard of margin of over one second, in a sport where victory is usually decided by tenths or even hundredths of a second. In the slalom, Tomba came from behind in the second run to win, in dramatic fashion, by a mere six-hundredths of a second. In between races, Tomba flirted shamelessly with all of the female athletes, even promising German figure skater Katerina Witt one of his gold medals. (She passed up his offer and won one of her own.)
Tomba's 1988-89 season was not as strong as the preceding one, although he maintained his rock-star status among his Italian fans. When he returned to Madonna di Campiglio, a tiny hamlet with a year-round population of just 1,000 people, for a World Cup event in December 1988, 20,000 people came to watch him compete, creating a traffic jam that lasted for a full 24 hours. Tomba won the slalom at Madonna di Campiglio, but it was his only victory that season.
Even though he was adored by the fans, Tomba's relationship with his Italian teammates was often rocky. Starting during the run-up to the 1992 Olympics, Tomba trained separately from the rest of the Italian team, which led to some jealousy and hard feelings. While most skiers share coaches and trainers with a whole team, at one point Tomba had his own coach, physical therapist, and sports psychologist, as well as assorted other trainers and assistants. Sometimes, when various national teams were all assigned their own practice slots before a competition, the "nation" of Tomba even got its own training slot.
|1966||Born December 19 in San Lazzaro di Savena, Italy|
|1987||Wins first points in a World Cup competition|
|1988||Competes in first Olympics, winning two gold medals|
|1989||Breaks collarbone during Super G race|
|1994||Competes in third Olympics, winning silver in slalom|
|1998||Retires from competitive skiing|
|2000||Makes acting debut in Alex l'ariete|
Slump and Comeback
After suffering a broken collarbone in 1989 and having weak seasons in 1988-89 and 1989-90, Tomba lost the 1991 World Cup in part as a result of a bizarre scandal at Lake Louise, Canada. Tomba was in Lake Louise preparing for a World Cup Super G race, when the manager of the Lake Louise ski area accused him of bad behavior, including knocking a female skier over while cutting into a lift line, and not showing proper respect to officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Tomba would not be permitted to compete in that Super G unless he publicly apologized. He refused, saying that he had already apologized to the woman whom he had bumped into, that he had done nothing else to apologize for, and blaming the misunderstanding on language differences. The race went on without Tomba (and without an another Italian skier who refused to race in protest of the Tomba decision), and Tomba finished the season just a few points short of the World Cup title. However, a cameraman for the Tele Monte Carlo station later wrote a letter to the International Skiing Federation saying that he had witnessed the incident at Lake Louise and that Tomba really had done nothing wrong. The skiing federation then declared that Lake Louise would no longer be allowed to host World Cup events, but for Tomba, the damage was already done.
Tomba was back in full form by the time the 1992 Albertville, France Olympics rolled around. Or the Albertoville Olympics, as Tomba soon dubbed them. His most often-repeated comment came at those games, when he told reporters that he had changed his training routine in light of the fact that he was getting older: now, instead of sleeping with three women until five A.M., he would sleep with five women until three A.M. (He was kidding.) He also set a new record, becoming the first Alpine skier ever to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the same event when he won the giant slalom. Tomba only narrowly missed winning a second gold in slalom as well: he placed second, twenty-eight-hundredths of a second behind the Norwegian Finn Christian Jagge.
Tomba's relationship with his well-to-do family has always been a part of his mystique. He amazed many by calling home to Italy—collect—between giant slalom runs in the 1988 Olympics, just to chat with his father and his eleven-year-old sister, Alessia. His father, a textile magnate from Bologna, promised him a Ferrari if he won a gold medal that year, and as he celebrated his first gold at the bottom of the slope, Tomba told his father and everyone else who was watching on television that he wanted the car to be red.
This and other incidents prompted some, in the early years of Tomba's career, to wonder if Tomba was skiing because he enjoyed it or because it was what his father wanted him to do. Certainly Tomba's father, Franco, did encourage his two sons, Tomba and his older brother Marco, to ski. Although the family lived near Bologna, in a flat part of the country, Franco would drive Marco and Alberto from their sixteenth century villa an hour up into the Apennine Mountains to watch skiing races in the winter. Then the elder Tomba would turn around, go to work for the day, and come back and pick the boys up at night. On their holidays, the whole family would head for the mountains and hit the slopes. Tomba first strapped on skis at age three, and he started racing at seven. At first, it looked as if Marco would be a better skier than Tomba, but this only motivated Tomba to try harder to prove to his father that he could be a champion, too. Alberto succeeded, and today, Marco is preparing to take over the family's clothing business.
In some ways Tomba's love for his family may have held him back. At an early age, he promised his mother that he would avoid the more dangerous downhill races. He kept this promise, even though it probably cost him the World Cup in some years: it is extremely difficult to accumulate enough points to win the World Cup when one is not skiing in all of the events. Tomba did ski in the Super G for a time, but he avoided that event, too, after breaking his collarbone when he fell in a Super G race in France in 1989.
Still Going Strong
After a disappointing performance in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics—no golds, and only one silver—Tomba had another phenomenal season in 1994-95. For over a year, starting on January 16, 1994, he was undefeated in slalom events. As in his early years, some of his victories were so lopsided as to be almost comical. He won one slalom race, early in 1995, by nearly two full seconds. There was more distance between Tomba and the runner-up than there was between the runner-up and the thirteenth-place finisher. In another race, on December 22, 1994, Tomba slid to a halt midway down the course, realigned himself, finished the course, and still won. This season, for the first time in his career, Tomba won the overall World Cup title, as well as the slalom and giant slalom titles.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Retired in 1998 with fifty World Cup wins (thirty-five in slalom and fifteen in giant slalom)|
|1988||Olympic gold medals in slalom and giant slalom|
|1988, 1992, 1994-95||World Cup champion, slalom||1988, 1991, 1992, 1995||World Cup champion, giant slalom|
|1992||Olympic gold medal in giant slalom|
|1995||World Cup champion, overall|
|1996||World Championships gold medals in slalom and giant slalom|
Where Is He Now?
Although he is now retired, Tomba has not disappeared from the spotlight. In 2000 he fulfilled a long-time aspiration of becoming an actor, starring in an Italian made-for-TV action movie called Alex l'ariete ("Alex the Ram"). He participates in ski events to benefit various local youth skiing programs and is an active sponsor of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). In 1996, Tomba signed a multi-year deal to be the major promoter for the Vail ski area and built a home near Vail, in Avon, Colorado. Tomba is also involved in business ventures that include selling his own fragrance, Indecente, and promoting a fairy-tale book written by his younger sister, Alessia.
Some in the media noted a mellowing of Tomba, at least in his personal life, in the 1994-95 season. At the
bottom of the hill in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, in January of 1995, instead of making an outrageous self-congratulatory remark of the type he was known for when he was twenty-one, Tomba instead dedicated his win in the giant slalom that day to the victims of the war going on in Bosnia, a few hundred miles to the southeast. Reportedly, he became less of a womanizer as well, and started looking more seriously for someone to settle down with. He was engaged to a former Miss Italy for a time, although they broke up after a semi-nude photograph of her was run in a magazine.
To Retire or Not to Retire?
In the spring of 1996, Tomba announced that he was taking a three-month break from skiing and considering retiring permanently. After winning the overall World Cup title in 1995 and two gold medals at the World Championships in February of 1996 (Tomba's first golds at that event), there was nothing left for him to win. However, the biggest incentive to retire was the pressure that Tomba felt from constantly being in the media spotlight. "It's not enough just to race," Tomba said in 1996, according to Outdoor Online. "Alberto must win every day. If I come in second, they say Alberto lost. In Italy they want to know about me every minute…. If I kiss a friend on the cheek, the papers say, 'Alberto's new girlfriend.' Then she has to hide. And her family, too. In Italy, they love me too much. They want to kill me. Now Alberto is tired. More than tired." Tomba was occasionally accused of assaulting photographers who violated his privacy, including throwing a trophy at one photographer, who had sold nude photographs of him. The photographer sued, claiming that he suffered a hand injury in the incident, and Tomba paid a fine to settle the suit. In 1996, Tomba was accused of karate-kicking another photographer, who was trying to photograph him outside of a party in Florence.
Not all of Tomba's run-ins with the law stemmed from the paparazzi. In 1998 he and his father were indicted for allegedly failing to pay taxes on 23 billion lire (about $12 million) that Tomba earned from sponsorships between 1990 and 1996. Tomba was eventually cleared, but in 2002 his father was convicted and sentenced to sixteen months in prison. Over the years, Tomba was also accused of abusing the police badge and flashing lights that came with his (mostly ceremonial) position with the Italian national police force, the Carabinieri.
Tomba did decide to come back to skiing. He had a weak 1997 season, but seemed poised to make a comeback in 1998. Unfortunately, the 1998 Nagano Olympics were not good to Tomba. He injured his back and groin in a fall during the giant slalom, and two days later, after coming in seventeenth place in the first run of the slalom, he withdrew from the event and did not make a second run. Speculation was rampant that this was the end for Tomba, but he came back at the end of the 1998 World Cup season, achieving his fiftieth career victory in the last race of the World Cup finals that year. In October of 1998 he announced his retirement with a simple one-line statement: "I reflected a lot before deciding, but I leave skiing with much affection for all of those who in these many years followed me and incited me to victory."
Skiing after Tomba
"The ultimate anomaly in a sport filled with sinewy, dour hermits from Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia who grew up tending cows and learning to ski out of necessity, Tomba was a lowlander, a rich kid and an urban dude—in truth, the first big-city guy ever to win Olympic skiing gold," Curry Kirkpatrick wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1992. With his rock-star status, he brought scores of people who might not otherwise have been skiing fans to the sport, and with his flamboyant lifestyle and his dominance in the slalom and giant slalom, Tomba is sure to be remembered for years to come.
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Sketch by Julia Bauder
Bauder, Julia. "Tomba, Alberto." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900574.html
Bauder, Julia. "Tomba, Alberto." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Retrieved May 25, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900574.html
Alberto Tomba (älbĕr´tō tôm´bä), 1966–, Italian skier. The winner of five Olympic medals, including golds for giant slalom (1988, 1992) and slalom (1988), and silvers for slalom (1992, 1994), Tomba became the first champion of the new World Cup circuit in 1995. Before retiring in 1998 to pursue an acting career, "La Bomba" (for his flamboyance on and off the slopes) won 50 World Cup events, and was seldom out of the news.
"Tomba, Alberto." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (May 25, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-TombaA.html
"Tomba, Alberto." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved May 25, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-TombaA.html