Alberto Tomba is the first alpine skier to win medals at three Olympic Games.
A rich city playboy from Bologna, Italy, Tomba was the face of ski racing in the late 1980s and early 90s. Known for his aggressive, all-action style, his nickname was “Tomba La Bomba” [Tomba the bomb]. Tomba was the best slalom skier in the world and he made sure everyone knew it, once shouting, “Sono una bestia!” [I am a beast!] as he crossed the finish line at a World Cup event early in 1995. One of the most captivating winter Olympians of all-time, Tomba was skiing’s Elvis. His flamboyant style on the slopes was matched by a reputation for fast living off of them. Tomba is the most decorated male alpine skier in Olympic history, having won five Olympic medals [three gold, two silver] while competing in four Winter Games. He won nine World Cup titles, including four in slalom and four in giant slalom, and was Overall Champion in 1995. In his prime, Tomba was the most dominant force in ski racing, becoming only the second man ever to win 50 World Cup races.
Born in Bologna, a non-Alpine area in north central Italy—on this date in 1966, Tomba grew up four miles southeast in San Lazzaro di Sevena, a town with just over 30,000 inhabitants. His father, Franco, was a wealthy textile magnate who made the one-hour drive to the Apennine Mountains with Alberto and his older brother, Marco, to watch ski races. Young Alberto skied for the first time at three. Four years later, he began racing. Although he enjoyed soccer, tennis, and dirt biking, Tomba’s first love was skiing. In 1984, he made the Italian National “B” Team after finishing fourth at the Junior World Championships. Later that year, he beat everyone on the Italian “A” team in an exhibition race in Milan. After capturing three wins on the Europa Cup circuit, Tomba made his World Cup debut in December 1985, three days before his 19th birthday. Tomba’s first podium finish came in Alta Badia, Italy, in December 1986. Several weeks later, he captured the bronze medal in giant slalom at the World Championships in Switzerland.
In November 1987, Tomba scored his first World Cup victory–a slalom race at Sestriere, Italy. Two days later, he beat Ingemar Stenmark—his idol and the greatest slalom specialist of all time—in giant slalom. Tomba went on to win his next four races and quickly emerged as a force to be reckoned with. He made his Olympic debut at the 1988 Calgary Games, where the Italian playboy was famously linked to East German speed skater Katarina Witt. In a sport where victory is usually decided by hundredths of a second, Tomba won the giant slalom by over one full second—a whopping margin. He also claimed gold in slalom. Four years later in Albertville, Tomba defended his giant slalom title to become the first alpine skier in Olympic history to win the same event twice. The “Playboy of the Piste” also took silver in slalom. Tomba became the biggest figure in skiing, attaining rock star status on the slopes. At the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, he missed a gate in the giant slalom event and was out of the completion. After finding himself in 12th place in slalom after the first run, Tomba threw caution to the wind in the second [and final] run to earn the silver medal, making him the first downhill ski racer to win medals in three separate Olympic Games.
Tomba had his best year in 1995, when the 28-year-old claimed World Cup gold medals in slalom, giant slalom and earned the crystal globe for the overall title. At the giant slalom Alpine World ski championships the following year, he made up 0.81 seconds on the first leg leader—an eternity in downhill racing—to top the podium. After taking bronze in slalom at the 1997 World’s, he decided to continue competing one more year. At the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, he crashed in the giant slalom, injuring himself so severely he was not able to continue. It was the only time in four Olympic competitions that Tomba failed to medal. He retired at the end of the 1998 season.
Alberto Tomba is the only male skier to win at least one race in 11 straight seasons. Braggadocious and uniquely brilliant, he pronounced himself “Messiah of the Mountain” and was a once-in-a-generation talent. Famous for his daring charges in the deciding second runs of his races, Tomba regularly made up large deficits from the first leg to storm to victory. He won a slalom race early in 1995 by nearly two full seconds. In that event, there was more distance between Tomba and the runner-up than there was between the runner-up and 13th place finisher. Taller, heavier, and more powerful than those who came before him, he revolutionized the style of slalom skiing. Instead of letting his skis come apart in the “skating step” between turns, Tomba kept them together, creating smoother turns. The style was soon adopted throughout the sport. “The way he skied, he was so light even though he was a big guy,” observed Franz Klammer, 1976 Olympic downhill champion for Austria. “ He was so light on his skis, smooth and he could pull it off—even though if the first run was not that great, he could really do it on the second run.”
Known as the “Pope of the Slopes” for his penchant for kneeling and kissing the snow in triumph after a win, Tomba had a charisma never before seen in his sport. He drove a red Ferrari, was engaged to a former Miss Italy, and turned Albertville into “Albertoville” at the 1992 Winter Games. A maestro on skis, Tomba had his own coach, physical therapist, and sports psychologist, which did not endear him to his teammates on Team Italy. He cultivated his playboy image with the press, particularly in Italy, often exaggerating his exploits. It got old. Tired of the press and attention he was receiving, Tomba retired at 31. His last victory came in the slalom at the 1998 World Cup finals in Crans Montana. In his career, Mr. Tomba posted 50 World Cup wins: 35 in slalom and 15 in giant slalom, including seven straight in 1995. He also claimed 28 second place and 11 third-place finishes in 13 seasons of World Cup skiing.