SAAS-FE, SWITZERLAND -- Italians love to lavish superlatives on their sports heroes. But not since Italy won the World Cup soccer championship six years ago has an athlete inspired the Italians like 21-year-old Alberto Tomba.
They call him "Tomba la Bomba" -- the bomb -- and this season the young slalom racer from lowland Bologna has won seven slalom races on the World Cup circuit. The reaction throughout Europe has been breathtaking. In late January, after he won a race here, he was called "L'urugano," the hurricane. The Italian sports daily Gazetta dello Sport proclaimed him "The new Kaiser of the snows."
There is good reason for all the attention. He is a sensation -- both on and off the slopes -- and has all the makings of a superstar at the Winter Olympics.
Not only has the handsome, curly-haired racer shown a remarkable mastery of the increasingly technical fine points of Alpine competition, but he burst on the usually staid ski circuit as the most flamboyant personality in the sport since the heyday of triple Olympic gold medal winner Jean-Claude Killy of France in the 1960s. Tomba less-than-humbly calls himself "the messiah of ski racing."
His prowess on the slopes seems matched by the fun he seems to have off the slopes, being cheered like a rock star by fans, chased by groupies, or staying up to shut down discothe`ques the night before racing.
"Cars and women," Tomba's friend and prospective agent, Marco Fontanesi, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He is the Vitas Gerulaitis of skiing."
A relative unknown last season despite a number of respectable placings in World Cup races and a surprising third in giant slalom at the World Championships at Crans Montana, Switzerland, Tomba this season has single-handedly changed the line on the Winter Olympics.
When the season began in November, this was boldly proclaimed "the year of the Swiss." After all, Swiss skiers had virtually dominated the sport last season -- winning eight of 10 gold medals in the World Championships while two team members, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Maria Walliser, ran away with the overall World Cup for the season.
Zurbriggen, a soft-spoken 24-year-old star from Saas-Almagell who won two gold medals and two silvers at the World Championships, was expected to be the dominant skier this season just as he was last. So was Walliser, who also won two golds at the championships.
But it hasn't worked out that way. Tomba has managed to steal much of Zurbriggen's thunder and publicity.
At the first men's World Cup race this season, at Sestieres, Italy, Tomba stunned everyone by winning both the slalom and the giant slalom.
The common wisdom at the time was that the victories were a fluke. The Italian team, locally known as the "Valanga Azzura," or Blue Avalanche, always has tended to do well in the first races of the season, which are mostly held on their local slopes. And how could Tomba be so good when none of the early predictions had even mentioned him as an Olympic medal candidate?
In December, Tomba won another giant slalom at Alta Badia, then another slalom at Madonna di Campiglio, both in Italy. He had won four in a row, taken the lead in the World Cup standings, and gotten the ski world's attention. Right before Christmas he won his fifth race, a slalom at Kranska Gora, Yugoslavia, but was disqualified in the giant slalom for running off the course.
In January, he placed second in one slalom, fifth in a super giant slalom, then won his fourth slalom. Then here, he won yet another giant slalom -- his seventh victory of the season -- and was crowned by many European analysts as the man to beat in the Winter Olympics.
He cuts a dashing figure at 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, unlike many of the more slight skiers. He is agile enough to shift between the slalom poles and strong enough to power down a hill at breakneck speed.
"If I could, I would just go straight down," he said. "But you have to make the turns. Otherwise it would be a downhill."
Not since Gustav Thoni won the World Cup for four years in the early 1970s has Italy seen anything like Tomba. And even Thoni never had a run of seven victories in one season, much less the personality that has all of Italy's news magazines competing for the wildest tale of Tombamania.
"Predicting who will win in the Olympics is always a risky business because people have been known to come out of nowhere," said George Capaul, the Swiss-born coach of the U.S. men's Olympic team. "But Tomba is coming into the Olympics like an NFL team coming into the Super Bowl with a 16-0 record. Not to pick him as the favorite is absurd."
That doesn't mean that Zurbriggen is just last year's star. While so far he has not had the spectacular string of victories that he did last year and that Tomba has this season, Zurbriggen has accumulated a hair more World Cup points than Tomba by virtue of the fact he skis in all four Alpine ski events while Tomba eschews the dangerous, daredevil downhill that is his Swiss rival's speciality.
So far this season, Zurbriggen has won two downhills and come in second in three. He placed second and third in the season's two super giant slaloms and has another second in a giant slalom that Tomba fell in. He has not impressed in slalom, Tomba's speciality.
As coaches and commentators on the World Cup circuit see it, Tomba will be the favorite in slalom and giant slalom, while Zurbriggen will be favored to take the downhill gold and, possibly, the Super G. But in the Super G, Tomba also has a chance as well as half a dozen other racers such as Canada's Felix Belczyk.
If Zurbriggen falters in the downhill, the betting is that it will be another Swiss, likely Daniel Mahrer or Peter Mueller, who wins it. Though Italy's Michael Mair and Canada's Rob Boyd have each won a downhill this season, the discipline remains a Swiss specialty.
Although Tomba would seem to be the leading prospect for slalom and giant slalom gold by virtue of his record this season, he is expected to get his strongest competition from the Austrians, led by Berhard Gstrein, Hubert Strolz and Guenther Mader.
If the always powerful Swiss men's team is no longer a shoo-in to dominate the alpine events as it did last year at the World Championships, the Swiss women remain the team to beat at the Olympics.
Three Swiss women -- 1984 Olympic downhill champion Michela Figini, Brigitte Oertli and Walliser -- lead in the World Cup standings this season. Slalom star Vreni Schneider is not too far behind them.
In meet after meet this season, the Swiss women's team has made it seem possible it will win all the Olympic golds, just as it did at last year's World Championships.
"It is hard to repeat last season," said Swiss women's coach Jean-Pierre Fournier, "But we have trained hard, we are in shape, our girls are skiing fine and we are going to the Olympics prepared to win."