The earth moved, but it had nothing to do with Italy’s Alberto Tomba.
Rain, sleet, snow, wind, fog--what else could happen to Olympic ski racing?
In a fitting end to an Alpine schedule that had a certain apocalyptic feel to it, Saturday’s men’s slalom was shaken by a moderate 5.0 temblor as Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko watched from the stands.
Yet, neither quake, pea-soup fog or driving sleet would stop this race--it was, after all, Olympic getaway day--and hardly affected the Norwegians, who claimed gold and silver.
Hans-Petter Buraas, a 22-year-old Norwegian ski team pup, won the gold with a two-run time of 1 minute 49.31 seconds.
He was 1.31 seconds faster than teammate Ole Christian Furuseth, who claimed silver, and 1.37 seconds ahead of bronze medalist Thomas Sykora of Austria.
Sykora, the reigning World Cup slalom champion, had a .22-second advantage over Buraas after the morning run, but the Norwegian easily overcame the margin with the fastest second-run time, 54.03 seconds, in the field.
Buraas looked more like a snowboarder on the course with his bright, orange-dyed hair, which made him easy to track on a course clouded by haze.
Matt Grosjean of Aliso Viejo was 11th after the first run and finished 15th.
Another ho-hum U.S. result.
“But I told my wife the other day on the phone that I’d rather have suffered the pain than not have had the opportunity,” Grosjean said.
At least Grosjean finished.
Italy’s Tomba, expected to make a grand last-Olympic splash, instead took a back-door exit out of town.
Still bruised after crashing 18 seconds into Thursday’s men’s giant slalom, Tomba skied a brutally slow morning run--1.94 seconds off the lead--and decided not to stick around.
He left without comment.
Tomba, 31, was in 17th place and would not have skied in the second-run first seed--the top 15, in reverse order--but this was hardly the way a five-time Olympic medalist was supposed to go out.
Four years ago, a more valiant Tomba rallied from a 1.84 first-run deficit to snatch the slalom silver in a dramatic Olympic moment.
But that was then.
Tomba couldn’t blame the earthquake for his troubles; it struck after his run.
Austria’s Mario Reiter was in the start gate at 9:55 a.m. when the ground shook beneath him.
He would not blame the quake for skiing off course.
“The Japanese gods were with me, but I didn’t know how to take advantage,” Reiter said.
The Olympics, obviously, will miss Tomba far more than he’ll miss them.
He swooshed onto the scene at the 1988 Calgary Games. He was 21 then, 100% Italian, the prototypal “Girls-Girls-Girls,” ski-racing swinger. The son of wealthy parents, Tomba didn’t race the dangerous speed events--downhill and super-giant slalom--because, he said, his mom would not allow it.
On the macho-driven, fear-no-downhill men’s circuit, Tomba got away with this character flaw because of his overwhelming talent as a slalom skier and his magnetic personality.
Sweden’s great Ingemar Stenmark, who won a record 85 World Cup technical events, once said Tomba “may be the greatest slalom skier ever.”
Tomba swept gold in slalom and giant slalom at Calgary as he courted figure skater Katarina Witt. At a press conference, Tomba offered one of his medals in exchange for a date.
Witt, instead, won her own gold medal and spurned the Italian’s advances.
Tomba returned in 1992 to win in Olympic giant slalom gold at Albertville--the first Alpine skier ever to repeat. He also won silver in slalom and kept reporters on 24-hour call.
Asked before Albertville if he had changed his training techniques, Tomba replied: “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m. In the Olympic Village, I will live it up with five women until 3 a.m.”
At a pre-Lillehammer press conference in 1994, Tomba all but said it would be his last Olympics.
As he spoke, a portly reporter made his way down an aisle.
Tomba watched the man and then, with perfect timing, said, “Tomba in Nagano.”
Tomba, however, pulled off one of the great comebacks in Olympic skiing history at Lillehammer.
The performance seemed to revive Tomba, as he returned to win the World Cup overall title in 1995.
He has slowed considerably since. Tomba hasn’t won a World Cup discipline title in three years. His giant slalom skills--witness his first-run crash in Nagano--have surrendered to time.
No one was sure how long Tomba could hang on. Most figured he could make it through two runs on Saturday.
But Tomba left without even taking a last bow.
After four Olympic appearances, Tomba rode into a Japanese sunset, headed off to Hollywood to make spaghetti Westerns.
Would it have hurt to say good-bye?
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Gold: Hans-Petter Buraas, Norway
Silver: Ole Christian Furuseth, Norway
Bronze: Thomas Sykora, Austria