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Bit players upstaged stars at the World Cup in Utah

The 1993-94 Olympic Alpine ski preview, otherwise known as the World Cup, made its American debut last week in Park City, Utah. The opening acts—a men's giant slalom and slalom—offered a heady mix of surprise and suspense; high-octane superstars were beaten by low-profile performers, and an upstart came within a few yards of blowing all the stars off the Wasatch Mountains.

The first act, the GS, was decided by .02 of a second—roughly the length of a ski tip—as the dazzling Italian stallion, Alberto Tomba, was edged at the finish by a stalwart Austrian, Günther Mader. In third place was the young Norwegian star, Kjetil Andrè Aamodt, .10 behind Tomba. Winning or losing, it was, of course, Tomba, now beginning his ninth World Cup season at the ripened age of 26, who made the greatest impression. Even before the first race he captured the hearts—and nearly ruptured the ears—of some 12,000 spectators when his tape-recorded voice blasted over the P.A. system, "Good Morning, Park City!" in deafening imitation of Robin Williams's disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam!

From there he got serious for a brief period, using his patented power-drive technique, which is intended to slash as straight a line through the 48 gates as possible. Starting second after Marc Girardelli, 30, who last year made what is probably unrepeatable history by winning his fifth overall World Cup, Tomba roared down the course and led the 15 seeded skiers after the first run. But then came Mader, 29, a Super G expert who was starting 17th because he had not won a GS in four years. He squeaked in .03 ahead of Tomba. In third place was the Aamazing Aamodt.

In the second run Tomba applied just enough of his power to stay ahead of Aamodt. With only the so-so GS talents of Mader left to threaten him, Tomba flung a ski into the air to celebrate what seemed to be his renewed dominion in Park City, where he had easily swept both races in the World Cup openers of 1991-92. Indeed, Mader looked uncertain on the steep top section of the course, and he dropped a seemingly fatal .45 behind Tomba at the intermediate point. However, using his Super G and downhill gliding skills on the flatter bottom section, Mader remarkably regained all the lost time plus the essential split second to edge Tomba.

Despite the loss, Tomba was ebullient, flinging his arm around Mader in the finish area and later declaring, "I am rather satisfied to be so close."

But questions naturally arose about Tomba's expectations for the Lillehammer Olympics, which begin Feb. 12, and he replied in halting English and a soft voice, "Everybody expects Alberto to win because he win gold before, but I cannot say what I can do. There are many important races before the Olympics. Maybe I will win gold in Lillehammer, maybe I will only get to the podium. I can't say. I don't like promises."

Silver or bronze would be fine, but gold would be historic. With two victories in the '88 Games and one in '92, Tomba could become the first Alpine ski racer to win gold in three Games. When asked about a possible Olympic triple, he replied mischievously, "A great idea: We agree Kjetil wins slalom, Günther wins Super G, and I win the other. O.K.?" Then he reached out to join hands with the other two as if they had just agreed to fix the Olympics to guarantee him a gold.

Someone then asked Tomba if he equated winning gold in three Games with Michael Jordan's winning three NBA championships, and if he might also decide to retire after that feat. Tomba replied with a twinkling eye, "As I understand, he stop because stress from the press is too much for him. For me, too, in Italy. He is a great champion in U.S. Me, too, in Italy. Maybe the solution is this: He goes to Italy and plays basketball, and I stay here and ski." So the stressful press pressed further, asking when Tomba will really retire—'94, '96, '98? "I'll tell you later," he sighed.

During the same press conference Aamodt wore a Chicago Bull cap in honor of Jordan, his hero. "I'm sad he is gone," the Norwegian said, "but it takes a very strong athlete to quit at the top of his career." In fact, at 22, Aamodt is close to the top of his own career. After only four years of world-class competition, he has won more Olympic and world championship medals than Tomba (six to five), and he has won them in the slalom, GS, Super G and the combined, while Tomba has scored only in the GS and the slalom.

Needless to say, home country expectations for Aamodt in Lillehammer are quite terrifying. Yet his coolness and maturity were a wonder to behold in Park City, where as he put it, "I have the ability to think of my own skiing and nothing else." Asked about his main goal in Lillehammer, Aamodt said, "I want to take a medal in the downhill, where I have never won before."

The second act of the men's show didn't go so well for the stars. In the first run of the slalom Tomba led by an enormous margin at the midway point, then lost his balance in a tight three-gate flush, straddled the next gate and fell. He was angry and threatened—briefly—to protest the way the gates had been set. In the second run the usually masterful Girardelli, who had finished 21st in the GS the day before, fell near the top. Then Tomas Fogdoe of Sweden, winner of the World Cup slalom title last season, fell near the middle of the course. Aamodt skied raggedly and finished sixth.

The most fascinating figure was one Siegfried Voglreiter, a 23-year-old from Piesendorf, Austria, who had never placed better than sixth in a World Cup race. Starting 32nd in the first run, he charged out to finish a phenomenal .43 ahead of the field. In his second run he broke powerfully out of the gate and at the midway point was leading by .61. He kept up a strong, confident pace down the rest of the 64-gate course until—nightmare of nightmares—he straddled the 60th gate and blew it all 15 yards from victory.

Coming in to grab the prize was another Austrian, Thomas Stangassinger, 28 and a World Cup competitor since 1984. Said Stangassinger of his backdoor victory, "Siegfried is young. He can afford to lose now. I am very happy to take what he has lost."

And what of the American men? Their best finish in the slalom was 13th, by Matt Grosjean, and no one finished the GS. All of which left America's Opening, as the competition in Park City was called, far more hospitable to the rest of the world than it was to the home team.



Tomba was second in the GS at Park City but will be going for gold in Lillehammer.