Unless you are a true, neon-blue, dyed-in-the-gore-tex ski groupie or someone who enjoys standing in the tilt mode on the side of a mountain and peering through a blizzard so that you can glimpse for a matter of seconds Alberto Tomba's spandexed and bibbed and begoggled figure speeding into the finish area, you are not likely to be able to distinguish him from any other slalom racer—or from your neighborhood Domino's delivery guy, either.
The reasons are simple, starting with 1) the nuances of style, form and technique in skiing, which are sufficiently esoteric to make it impossible to tell the racers apart. Despite what the sport's experts insist, ski viewing is unlike distinguishing between, say, Barry Sanders and Barry Manilow. Wasn't it James Bond himself who chased over the snows after some incredibly nasty villain only to catch up, rip his prey's mask off and discover it was Ursula Andress or somebody? Then there's 2) the fact that you just can't see these racers close enough in the 3) five minutes max—and, more often, two runs totaling 2:02.485 and one ten-thousandth of a second—in which they perform in an event, what with 4) them hidden head to toe in all those exquisite rainbow wrappings and 5) you stranded somewhere up on the hill wondering if your teeth were this numb during that last root canal.
Some spectator sport, skiing. Not.
Except for one thing: Alberto Tomba's thighs. Through all the long distances and the cold temperatures and—zip! he just went by; sorry, you can't be turning your head in this deal—the impossibly quick sightings, it is difficult to miss or even mistake Tomba's thighs. They are not defined by outsized bulges or ripples or any other steamy-novel characterizations. They are just hard, solid mass. "It is impossible to pinch them," says Tomba's physical trainer, Giorgio d'Urbano. Like Bob Lanier's feet, Paul Newman's eyes, Don King's hair, the thighs of Tomba are singular forces of nature—twin peaks of prodigious power that are primarily responsible for the speed, strength, turning ability and feel for the snow that enable Tomba to both attack the slalom poles viciously and finesse his way to all those winning times.
"What's the difference in you now?" Tomba was asked recently by a journalist mindful of the flickering of Tomba's radiant star over the past few winters.
"Fat to muscle...change," Tomba said in his halting yet lilting English. He pointed to one of those blue-jean-covered slabs jutting out from a table at a hotel bar in Breckenridge, Colo. "You can touch me if you want." Would any curious human reject the chance to caress Don King's hair?
Tomba was half right. Fat to concrete...change.
A couple of blizzards later, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, Tomba wiped out the best ski racers from around the globe in Park City, Utah, to open this World Cup season, winning both the slalom and the giant slalom (GS) with his usual pizzazz. One day, too hyper to wait, he leaped from a moving ski lift before the prerace course examination so he could get to the starting hut that much quicker.
Back in Breckenridge the next week, Tomba finished second in a GS and a slalom to Paul Accola, who resembles a young Sonny Jurgensen incarnate as a chipmunk-cheeked carpenter from Davos, Switzerland. After the races, Tomba presented Accola with a celebratory plate of spaghetti, and Accola promised Tomba some retaliatory Swiss cheese at a future date.
Royalty and serfs usually know their places. "The danger," Accola admitted, "is to become the victim of a Tomba complex." And earlier, talking to his mates on the Italian team near a microphone that he didn't know was turned on, Tomba had said of Accola, "Now even this cabbage has started winning. It's going to be hard, boys." To the Italian reporters, who cover Tomba as they would any other mortal who combines the renown of a royal potentate, a rock star and a mass killer, Tomba—obviously thinking Accola was Sonny Jurgensen—said, "I must get more evil. Wait until we get to Europe and he finds out what it's like to ski away from home."