"i Am The New Messiah Of Skiing!"
Tomba blasted onto the skiing scene, going from virtual unknown to Olympic champion in only a few months. He won his first World Cup event, at Sestriere, Italy, in November of 1987, and went on to win the next four races straight. He lost his sixth race of the season, a giant slalom, after spending two days raucously celebrating
his twenty-first birthday, but after continuing the celebration for a third night he came back to win the slalom.
From the beginning, Tomba was known for his eccentricity. At the world skiing championships in 1987, where Tomba won a bronze medal in the giant slalom, he earned extra money by washing cars between races—despite the fact that his family was extremely wealthy. That eccentricity blossomed into flamboyance as Tomba began winning in the 1987-88 season. He shouted "Sono una bestia!" ("I am a beast!") as he crossed the finish line in Sestriere. In Madonna di Campiglio, where he achieved his fourth victory of the 1987-88 season, his cry was "I am the new messiah of skiing!" At the end of one race, he cheerfully autographed several female fans' bottoms. (They were wearing ski pants at the time.) "I'm considered the clown of my team because I cannot be serious for two minutes," Tomba told Bruce Newman of Sports Illustrated shortly before the 1988 Winter Olympics. "I'm afraid if I become more serious I will stop winning. Maybe I will learn not to say bad words in the future, but that is the best to be hoped for." Certainly, it was too much to be hoped for that Tomba might be well-behaved at the Olympic training camp in the Canadian Rockies, where he slipped ice cubes down people's shirts and launched spitballs at meals.
Tomba's reputation, for skiing prowess and for outrageous behavior, only grew at the 1988 Calgary, Alberta Olympics. Early on, he predicted that he would win the slalom and giant slalom races. He did indeed win both of them—the giant slalom by the unheard of margin of over one second, in a sport where victory is usually decided by tenths or even hundredths of a second. In the slalom, Tomba came from behind in the second run to win, in dramatic fashion, by a mere six-hundredths of a second. In between races, Tomba flirted shamelessly with all of the female athletes, even promising German figure skater Katerina Witt one of his gold medals. (She passed up his offer and won one of her own.)
Tomba's 1988-89 season was not as strong as the preceding one, although he maintained his rock-star status among his Italian fans. When he returned to Madonna di Campiglio, a tiny hamlet with a year-round population of just 1,000 people, for a World Cup event in December 1988, 20,000 people came to watch him compete, creating a traffic jam that lasted for a full 24 hours. Tomba won the slalom at Madonna di Campiglio, but it was his only victory that season.
Even though he was adored by the fans, Tomba's relationship with his Italian teammates was often rocky. Starting during the run-up to the 1992 Olympics, Tomba trained separately from the rest of the Italian team, which led to some jealousy and hard feelings. While most skiers share coaches and trainers with a whole team, at one point Tomba had his own coach, physical therapist, and sports psychologist, as well as assorted other trainers and assistants. Sometimes, when various national teams were all assigned their own practice slots before a competition, the "nation" of Tomba even got its own training slot.