VAL D'ISERE, France -- They came pouring over the mountains from the nearby Italian border, traveling by car, bus and train: thousands of Italians waving signs, banners and 20-foot flags of red, white and green, their faces painted, their voices hoarse.
They organized a sunrise march yesterday through the streets of this tiny resort, singing soccer songs, stomping their boots in the snow and waving their arms, making sure everyone in town knew this was the day.
Finally, when it was time for the men's Olympic giant slalom, they gathered eight-deep along the finish line to cheer Alberto Tomba. And their man delivered.
That is Tomba's 14-carat lining. Though the 25-year-old Italian ski star is an unabashed party animal, playboy, clown and close, personal friend of the prettiest woman in any room, when it is time to race, to sustain his fame, he delivers.
Yesterday, he became the first skier to win the same race in two different Olympics, taking the gold medal in the giant slalom on a cold, sunny afternoon. And he did it with a dramatic performance certain to add luster to his legend.
Halfway down the mountain on the second of his two runs, he was 0.3 of a second behind his great rival, Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli. But with his knees bent and his burly body swooping gracefully between the blue and red gates, Tomba gained an astonishing 0.6 of a second on Girardelli before crossing the finish line.
When he turned and saw on the scoreboard that he had won by 0.32, setting off a wild reaction among his supporters, Tomba's first response was to raise his right hand and give "the pope wave," his thumb and two forefingers together.
Then he briefly embraced Girardelli, who could only shake his head in admiration. Tomba sank to his knees, his stubble-bearded face looking to the sky. Then he rose and crossed the finish area to celebrate with those among the thousands of Italian fans fortunate enough to be in the front row.
"I couldn't tell I had won until I saw the people waving the flags," he said. "It is, of course, a great victory. I knew I needed to attack at the bottom. There will be many headlines in the Italian papers tomorrow. Maybe even on the political page. There will be articles in newspapers that have never written about me before."
He was speaking to reporters not long after the race, and goodness knows what the rest of the day -- and particularly the night -- would hold. He races again Saturday in the slalom, but the notion of conserving himself isn't in his world view.
Upon arriving here Sunday (by helicopter), he explained to the press how his training was different from the 1988 Olympics: "I used to have a party with three girls until 5 in the morning. Now, it is five girls until 3 in the morning." The point being, apparently, that at least he's going to bed two hours earlier.
Yesterday, he said: "There is no time for parties right now. Especially with me up here and the girls [skiers] down in Meribel." But he was smiling when he said it. And somewhere in his gloves, no doubt, his fingers were crossed.
Certainly, he represents a stunning departure for a ski world long ruled by unassuming country boys from small mountain towns in Switzerland, Austria and France. Tomba is a prodigious eater who has to train hard to keep from being downright fat. He admitted eating three sandwiches as soon as the race was over yesterday. And it's impossible to keep track of his girlfriends.
For having all those style points and still managing to be the best big-race man in skiing, he has become one of the biggest names in Italy. You always can find his name in the headlines, alongside the soccer stars.
"We love him because he is a real Italian," said Claudio Sattin, a 23-year-old resort employee from Venice who, standing by the finish line yesterday, had his face painted in Italian colors. "The Italian skiers from before were from the northern part of the country, the mountains near Austria. They were Italians who didn't speak Italian. Tomba is from Bologna. He eats spaghetti and pizza."
All around Sattin, a flag-waving celebration was well under way. One banner had a black-and-white picture of Tomba's head imposed on a naked, gold upper torso, with a "No. 1" index finger raised. Other signs said, "The Alberto Gold Club" and "This is Albert-o Ville."
Said Sattin: "There will be a great party tonight."
And leading the way, perhaps, would the No. 1 party water buffalo himself, the man who said yesterday: "I know I am famous in America because Americans like to do crazy things, and I do them."
His victory yesterday brought Tomba full circle, to the pinnacle of the sport. He slumped after his double-gold performance in 1988, losing twice in World Cup competitions. He basically separated from the Italian team, training by himself. The national team coaches didn't want his bad habits rubbing off.
Some observers said he was too young to handle his great fame and success. But he got himself back together last year, with the help of a team that included two coaches, a trainer, a dietitian and a psychologist. That it takes that many people to keep him in line speaks volumes, but he is again at the top of the World Cup standings. He has gone gold again. Let the party begin.