Relighting the Olympic Fire

Alberto Tomba is unquestionably Italy's greatest skiing legend. The 39-year-old has won five Olympic medals and more than 50 World Cup skiing events during his 15-year professional career. Since retiring in 1998, the charismatic Tomba has been peddling Olympic spirit as Samsung's "Global Athlete Ambassador"; he's also an ambassador for the Torino Organizing Committee (TOROC). And thanks to a flair for pageantry that earned him the nickname "Tomba la Bomba" during his glory days, he has become the personality of the upcoming Torino Winter Olympics, which will open on Feb. 10. A front runner to light the Olympic Flame (an honor kept secret until the opening ceremonies), Tomba has vowed to add his charismatic spark to what has so far been lackluster Olympic spirit ahead of the 20th Winter Games. NEWSWEEK's Barbie Nadeau spoke with La Bomba last week. Excerpts:

TOMBA: This is a new experience for me. For four Winter Games, from '88 to '98, I was center stage as an athlete. Now I'm part of the Organizing Committee, and it is a great opportunity for me to give back. It's amazing to witness the workings of the huge Olympic machine directly from the front office.

I'm not worried about this at all. I think it's typical of the Italian culture that we start to feel emotional and excited about something when we have the possibility to see it in front of us. There are millions of people who love winter sports in Italy. I assure you that the Italian people will begin to anticipate the coming Games more and more as each day passes and they see news of the Olympics on TV and in newspapers and magazines. Enthusiasm will continue to grow and by February, Italy will have Olympic fever for sure. I know it's not the Summer Olympics, but this is really the greatest sporting event in the world. They've got to come.

I think Alitalia and these companies are just using the Olympics to get attention--it is working. Everything will be OK when the Olympics begin, but until then it's almost anything goes.

I hope it will be OK. Of course I'm worried--we're all worried. But I have to tell people: "Don't think about it, the security is in place, they know what they're doing."

It's difficult to predict. I hope that some of the Italian skiers will surprise us, like I did in 1988 in Calgary. On the men's side, the favorite in slalom is Giorgio Rocca, but I know that Bode Miller is really talented and Hermann Maier has incredible determination and will to bring home at least one gold medal. For the women, Italian Karen Putzer just returned to racing, and I also like the style and determination of Julia Mancuso, the American with Italian roots.

I didn't see what he said. I wasn't there when he said it. You've got to remember that people invent things all the time to sell magazines and to make these stories more interesting. You may wonder if it's hard to be that good or that talented without taking enhancing drugs. In the end people listen to what they want to hear. But the athletes know inside what their truth is. For me, eating pasta was what worked to help me win.

I remember when the Jamaican bobsled team made their first show in Calgary in 1988. We don't know yet if Kwame Acheampong from Ghana will qualify for the giant slalom, but I hope so. People surprise us in every discipline. That is really the Olympic dream, after all.

Do Italians have something to prove as the hosts of the Games?

I sincerely believe that these will be an unforgettable Games. My hope is that we will show the world how passionate we are about sports and how proud we are to host the Winter Olympics in Italy for the first time in 50 years.

I don't know. Really, I don't. It's a secret until the last moment. It is every athlete's dream to light the flame at his country's Olympic ceremony. It would be like a victory. It would be like winning another gold medal.