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Original Issue

Snow Queen

With five medals, Nordic specialist Manuela Di Centa of Italy outshone all others at the Games

The night after she won her fifth medal and became the most-decorated athlete at these Winter Games, Manuela Di Centa, the dazzling Italian cross-country skier, celebrated at a dinner with friends in a private home near Lillehammer. But she was not entirely happy. The cover of a magazine in Milan pictured her topless on a beach in Italy. "Why do they do these things?" Di Centa said. "I was with my family at this beach. What is the importance of this?"

The importance of this was that la bella Manuela had suddenly become the queen of skiing in Italy. And henceforth she would share the hearts and minds of her countrymen—not to mention their gossip columns—with the king, the flamboyant slalomist Alberto Tomba, who was also having his troubles with Italian tabloids.

It was not as if Di Centa was an unknown before these Olympics. Now 31, she began competing on the national team when she was 17, and more than once her rebellious spirit and her radiant beauty had made her a hot subject in the papers. After four seasons with the Italian team she quit cold in 1984, loudly denouncing the national ski federation. "They paid no attention to women," Di Centa says. "We skied, but we were taught nothing. The world of cross-country skiing used unnatural systems—yes, blood doping [then legal] went on. I didn't agree with these things. I quit."

When the coaching staff of the ski federation changed in 1987, Di Centa returned to the team and soon began a feud with its rising star, the steady Stefania Belmondo, who is six years Di Centa's junior and her opposite in personality. Di Centa resented the fact that she had fought the battle for women on the team while Belmondo simply sashayed through the door Di Centa had opened. It didn't help that Belmondo repeatedly outshone Di Centa in competition, including at Albertville in 1992, where Belmondo won three Olympic medals to Di Centa's one.

Di Centa didn't know it, but at the time of the '92 Games she was suffering from a debilitating malfunction of her thyroid gland. "I was crying before races, I had no spring, no life," she says. After Albertville she twice entered a hospital for stays of a month. She was so weak and depressed that, she says, "my only goal was to survive." Later that year a doctor in Pisa finally identified her malady and prescribed a drug, Eutirox 100, that Di Centa must take daily for the rest of her life.

Di Centa's harvest of medals in Lillehammer comprised golds in the 15-kilometer and 30K races, silvers in the 5K and the pursuit, and a bronze in the 4 X 5K relay. And to her great satisfaction, she trampled Belmondo, who had an injured toe and won only two bronzes. "I want little girls to be inspired by seeing that a woman who is not like a man can win in sport," Di Centa says. "I think my medals touch all women. Especially in Italy."

As for Tomba, he arrived in Norway on a serious mission: to become the first Alpine skier to win gold in three consecutive Olympics. As always, however, there was a limit to Tomba's seriousness. At a press conference someone recalled that after his previous Olympic triumphs, at Calgary in '88 and at Albertville, Tomba had suggested that Alberta change its name to Alberto, and Albertville to Albertoville. What would he rename Lillehammer if he won gold? Said Alberto: "Lille-Tomba."

He then revealed that he had brought his own chef, his own stash of Italian wine and his own condoms. Someone asked how he was doing with women in Norway. "Maybe tonight will be better," he said.

When Italian tabloids jumped all over these items, Tomba complained, "No one knows a joke anymore. My girlfriend has called me crying on the phone."

The crying got worse before it got better. In the giant slalom an uncharacteristically clumsy Tomba was 13th after the first run, then missed a gate in the second. In the slalom he had a desultory first run that left him in 12th place. On his second try, though, Tomba was Tomba, cracking off a tremendous run to win the silver.

Tomba's failure to get a gold kept him out of the history books, so Lillehammer will not be renamed Lille-Tomba. But how about Manuela-hammer?