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Tomba wins only silver, keeps smiling

Alberto Tomba fell backward in the snow, waggling his skis in the frozen air, imitating a freshly exterminated cockroach.

La Bomba, who's been labeled a picture pig, was creating a photo opportunity Saturday, in case his blistering second slalom run rescued the Olympic gold medal.

"I had no choice but to attack," Tomba said in his halting, charming English. "I took much risk going after the gold, having been victimized in my first run by skis with edges too sharp."

Italy's swaggering, cocksure skiing Adonis placed a humbling seventh in the opening Les Menuires trip, a whopping 1.58 seconds behind a front-running Norwegian with the unlikely name of Finn Christian Jagge.

"If anybody can catch up, it is me," Tomba said at slalom halftime to Gustavo Thoeni, an Italian skiing hero of the 1970s who coaches him. "Listen to the people! Oh, they want me, Gustavo!"

Italian legions had been semi-muted by Alberto's disappointing first run. But soon it became afternoon, with refreshed hope. It would take a miracle run, but many Italians think La Bomba can turn snow to wine. Voices from his homeland lined the slalom course, screeching and singing, even falling to knees in prayer for Tomba.

"I do not pray," said Antonio Bos, a Florence florist, "because Alberto does not need it. He is the lord of all Olympic mountains. He is the one we worship."

Four years ago at Calgary, Tomba won both slalom and giant-slalom gold medals. Now 25, the skiing playboy went swashbuckling into history earlier this week, taking GS gold in the XVI Winter Games, the first Alpine racer to win in back-to-back Olympics.

But could he pull off an Olympic double-double? "I've won the giant slalom," he had bragged, "and the slalom is a far stronger race for me. Winning seems likely." But Tomba needed a startling second run, or perhaps a stumble by runaway leader Jagge.

As Tomba came grunting from the start house on the climactic run, college student Verni Carpatto from Naples bellowed, "Do it, my darling Alberto!" She clanged a cowbell and carried a poster of a naked male body with La Bomba's cutout face pasted onto the proper anatomical place.

Tomba schussed past, and Verni blew kisses. When Alberto reached the finish, he wheeled to see the time. "51.66" told him a medal was reachable, and there was a long-shot chance for gold.

Six contenders were yet to take their second runs. Tomba stood by helplessly and watched and wished foul fortune for his rivals. Groupies stretched across a retaining fence, trying to put even a fingernail on their idol.

Sweden's Tomas Fogdoe and Switzerland's Patrick Staub took their slalom shots but fell shy of Tomba's two-run clocking of 1:44.67. Austria's Michael Tritscher then missed by a ski length, finishing .18 of a second behind Tomba.

Then there was one.

Jagge, a 25-year-old with vanilla hair, went slashing through the early part of the Les Menuires course. Tomba's eyes were lasered in on a giant TV screen. He half-smiled, half-grimaced. Jagge's advantage shrank as the upset man from Oslo swivel-hipped down the mountain.

But, at the finish, victorious numbers flashed for Jagge, a cumulative time of 1:44.39 that outdid La Bomba by .28 of a second. Tomba shrugged, giving gold-medalist Jagge a half-hearted pat on the hand. Alberto slowly slid away with his silver.

"We still love you," cried a chorus of Italian teen-aged girls. Tomba looked at them without reaction but later suggested, "It's still a great day for Italy. Silver is not a worthless treasure."

After his Calgary conquests, Tomba put on weight, and for two years reaped more headlines for socializing, womanizing and gluttonizing than for winning ski races. He was called "Fat Alberto," after the blimpish old Bill Cosby cartoon character.

Eventually, he rebounded to dominate the World Cup circuit, while apparently moderating his social swirl, and arrived in Albertville on a professional high.

Asked about another post-Olympics relapse into his vices, Tomba grinned and said, "I start tomorrow." Then he added, "No, just kidding. You must make sacrifices and renounce some of the easy life to excel in sport. I will be more careful now, but I also promise to have some good times. Catch me if you can."