CALGARY -- If the devil grabs you today and hisses, "We're playing a little game. For your soul. I'm not telling you what sport yet. You can choose one teammate from all the Winter Olympics athletes."
Time for serious thought, eh.
After today, it sure looks like "la Bomba", a devil of a guy.
Step back far enough, say to the moon, and, from that distance, only two names really suggest themselves. From a world-sport perspective, Alberto Tomba and Pirmin Zurbriggen bestride the XV Winter Olympics. They'd be centers in Soviet hockey, goalies in Brazilian soccer, prize fighters in Cuba or center fielders in the United States. They're big enough to play anything, agile enough to adapt and courageous beyond known limits.
The brute-strong, 5-foot-10, 194-pound Tomba -- think of Walter Payton on snow with Babe Ruth's taste in nightlife and Muhammad Ali's sense of personal style -- took the lead in Olympic Myth Points today by insulting the giant slalom course at Nakiska from top to bottom. He chopped the big hill down so badly it will need lifts to look you in the eye. Tomba could have waved to fans, beaten his chest or screamed, "I am a beast," as he crossed the finish line -- all of which he's done on the World Cup circuit -- and still won from Bologna to Rome.
Tomba encountered his first adoring fans, his first Italian flag and his first microphone about one second after finishing his second run. "I'm the best in the world," he bellowed shyly.
Unless Tomba fails or Zurbriggen amazes the ski world with a victory on Saturday in La Bomba's specialty -- the slalom -- that modest judgment will become universal in a hurry. Not bad for a 21-year-old who never won a major race until four months ago.
"Today, there is only Tomba," said Ingemar Stenmark this week. "He's way above . . . the best overall and maybe the best slalom skier ever . . . He is better than I was at Lake Placid." Stenmark? Oh, he won two gold medals at Lake Placid and 10 World Cup giant slaloms in a year.
Tomba denies he has called himself "the Messiah of skiing," but that doesn't mean it isn't true. TV ratings for skiing have quadrupled in Italy since his eruption. He's slightly colorful. This week, he said he needed a gold medal badly so it would give him "a certain prestige" in the Olympic Village if he should happen to meet "beautiful Katarina Witt." The gold medal will go well with the new Ferrari his daddy promised him if he won a gold. "I want it red," Tomba said.
Lest we think Rambo Tomba (Europe is having a nickname-the-deity contest) is a grubby materialist, let it be known he's from one of the oldest ruling communist families in Bologna. Love those Italian Marxists: from each according to his gifts, to each according to his World Cup points.
Was it really just last week that Zurbriggen was being considered for coronation on the strength of three possible gold medals and a couple of silvers behind Tomba? Then, everybody was teasing Tomba (tomb in Italian) about the reason he said he wouldn't race in downhills against Zurbriggen.
Mama said, "No."
Now, Zurbriggen's fall in the final slalom run of the Alpine combined has grown larger. After being too reckless in the combined and squandering a gold medal, he was too cautious in the super giant slalom, finishing fifth. Now, Zurbriggen is in Tomba Territory.
In fact, Strolz, who says, "Tomba is too strong, you can't do anything against him," now has a gold in combined and a silver in GS. Who thought humble Hubi might take more baubles in Calgary than his buddy Pirmin?
"Five medals, I think, is too much," said Zurbriggen after the downhill when asked of his chances to match Eric Heiden's five gold medals, "but perhaps three is all right."
How does one sound?
Zurbriggen ducked a press conference after his bronze medal finish today. Earlier, however, he assessed his chances on Saturday to upstage (next nickname envelope, please) "The Beast". "You never know when someone can fall or make a big mistake." Mind games, Pirmin?
Pasta and parties may someday undo Tomba; he had to lose 13 pounds the last two years to reach his present peak. But it could be a long wait before he beats himself by thinking too much. "He doesn't think because he has no brain. If he had one, he wouldn't stage such a circus before, during and after his races," a former member of the Italian ski team told the Calgary Sun.
Tomba puts it differently: "I don't think . . . I only go." While others meditate or ventilate in the final seconds at the mountain top, Tomba packs his feet in snow so his boots will feel harder. His only explanation for his vast victory margins is the mysterious yet accurate observation that, "When others seem to be breaking, I seem to be accelerating."
True, nobody skies like Tomba, who crouches lower and stands up less than any other slalom racer. He not only attacks the poles, but shoulder-blocks them, sending the new breakaway gates flying behind him. Tomba is also less concerned with his speed at the gate then maintaining a tight line that allows him to regain speed between gates. Ski experts call him the first Alpine hybrid -- big enough to build downhill speed and obliterate gates, yet big-cat agile enough for the sharp turns.
Unless little Bonnie Blair wins three gold medals by trouncing the legendary Karin Enke-Kania a couple of more times, Tomba and Zurbriggen will remain the central characters here in Calgary. And Zurbriggen is fading.
When the Swiss was disappointed in the combined, he responded poorly in Super G, a race in which his chances were rated basically the same as Tomba's today. By contrast, when Tomba fell in Super G -- and twisted his knee so he could not train for two days -- he said, "Come back on Thursday. I will be here for the giant slalom."
Present and accounted for.
As the sun set, Tomba was asked how he planned to celebrate. The head of thick black curly hair snapped to attention. The perfect white teeth flashed. Those bullet-black eyes, which kept making Tomba's young blond translator blush, looked very merry. "Not finished yet," he said. "Back to the fortress by 10 o'clock . . .
"Wait two days."
By then, his fragile self-confidence bolstered by golden medals and a red Ferrari, nobody will be safe. Not even Katarina Witt.