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‘94 WINTER LILLEHAMMER OLYMPICS : Alberto Ties Up Some Loose Ends With a Silver Thread : Alpine skiing: Tomba goes out in style with super second run in slalom. He loses gold medal to Austria’s Stangassinger by 0.75 seconds.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What Alberto Tomba may lack in grace he certainly makes up for in race, with a flair for the dramatic that borders on unworldly, even if it is sometimes a byproduct of his own miscalculation.

Tomba’s magnetism on a ski slope is such that the lasting image of Sunday’s slalom at Hafjell will not be of the stoic, calculating Austrian, Thomas Stangassinger, in victory, but rather a seat-of-the-pants Italian from Bologna, in defeat.

The record will show that Stangassinger took the gold with a two-run time of 2 minutes 2.02 seconds, that Tomba won the silver, 0.75 seconds behind, and that Slovenia’s Jure Kosir claimed the bronze.

It will proclaim that Tomba, competing in his last Olympic race, was knocked to the slalom canvas with the 12th-fastest first run (1:02.84), and had Stangassinger on the ropes at the final bell after a second run of 59.33 seconds.

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Tomba made up 1.69 seconds on the Austrian with a hair-raising second run that was almost a classic rerun of his Olympic slalom charge two years earlier at Albertville, where he made up 1.30 seconds on Norway’s Finn Christian Jagge, only to fall 0.28 short of the gold.

Paul Casey Puckett, an unsung American who finished seventh, a stunning result for him, won’t forget to record Sunday in his race diary, either.

“I would say he was the most incredible skier who ever was,” Puckett said.

This, for the runner-up.

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The race was a reflection of personalities.

Stangassinger did not miss a trick. He put a gold-medal plan into motion and carried it through. He arrived in Lillehammer only four days before the race so that he could relax and train on softer snow at home.

Once here, Stangassinger took meticulous notes, charted the course, checked weather reports--really did his race homework. While his peers fought for the lowest starting number possible, Stangassinger selected bib No. 8, deducing from earlier results that he who started first did not necessarily finish first. Stangassinger had the course pegged, and had a first run of 101.00, 0.80 faster than his nearest challenger’s. The bulk of his work done, he dared anyone to catch him.

Tomba, on the other hand, did not miss a party. He came to Lillehammer on Feb. 18, promptly moved out of the Olympic village into a private cottage, continued his pursuit of figure skater Katerina Witt and complained about the cold. He said he wore out his legs training on the hard Norwegian snow.

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As the top-ranked slalom skier, Tomba chose bib No. 1 because it was the number he had worn when he won his first gold medal at the 1988 Calgary Games.

So much for strategy.

Tomba made his adjustment mid-race, after bombing out on the first run of a killer course on which only 22 of the 57 racers finished.

Tomba is so good he’s often compared to himself. But at 27, he admits he is no longer the skier who so easily swept the slalom and GS at Calgary in 1988.

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“The Tomba from Calgary would have for sure had a better first run,” Tomba said.

Sunday’s course actually was two courses: the snow marble-hard on top and soft and “grabby” on the bottom. Skiers who sharpened their edges to make sure turns on the ice lost time on the lower section.

Tomba, skiing on fumes, changed to new skis between runs and dulled his edges with sandpaper. “In the Olympics, you have no choice,” he said. “You just have to take all the risks you can.”

Skiing fourth in the afternoon, Tomba guessed that if he could survive the top, he could make up time near the bottom.

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Going for broke, he survived a near fall at the second gate and fled the scene on his way to the fastest second-run time. Still, Tomba figured his great run could not save the day. He was only renting first place.

He waved his hands in disgust and told his entourage, in Italian, “Let’s go home.”

No one left, though. The next seven racers could not better Tomba’s time. With each failure, he inched closer to a medal, and the Tomba freaks waved their Italian flags with more conviction and incrementally increased the decibel levels in their chants of “Tomba! Tomba! Tomba!”

Tomba was still first with the fastest four yet to ski. He would need two breaks to win bronze, three to win silver, four to win gold.

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He got three. He called this occurrence, “Magic Alberto.”

Some others might call it a hex.

Thomas Sykora of Austria crashed. One down.

Germany’s Peter Roth skied off course. Two down. Tomba had the bronze.

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Standing between Tomba and silver was Kjetil Andre Aamodt, 22, of Norway, who had already won more Olympic medals--five--than any other male skier in history.

Aamodt was staring at medal No. 6 when he shot out of the start, dived into the treacherous cut around Gate 2 and felt the skis slide out from under him.

Tomba couldn’t believe his fortune.

The Tomba sharks suddenly smelled gold, but Stangassinger, the 28-year-old tactician, had a solid plan. Knowing he had time to give, he carefully carved his way through the danger zone and made a safe, sure run to the finish. His second-run time was 1:01.02.

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“Tomba made a perfect second run,” Stangassinger said. “And I had a perfect first run. It was very close in the finish.”

Tomba, who had announced this was his last Olympics, paraded around the finish corral like a boy on the last day of school. Several Norwegian hostesses, dressed in traditional costumes, lifted Tomba onto their shoulders.

Dressed in an aqua-blue Italian warm-up suit, he made the rounds to his various cheering sections. After shaking one Italian flag off its pole, he pitched the shaft like a javelin aimlessly into the stands. Tomba again, throwing caution to the wind.

With the fifth medal of his career--three gold, two silver--Tomba tied Aamodt and Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider for most Alpine medals in Olympic history.

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Tomba loves to act the clown, flirt with women. He sometimes gets into the darndest predicaments. Yet, Sunday, Tomba danced like a man who had been relieved of a great burden.

“Of course,” he said. “There was a lot of pressure on me. Everyone wanted me to do well, and I wanted to do well. I didn’t sleep at all last night.”

Sunday night, it was Italy’s turn.


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