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    Friday, February 20, 1998

    Tomba bids quiet farewell to Olympic career

     SHIGA KOGEN, Japan (AP) -- The earth shook. The emperor was watching. All was in place for Alberto Tomba's triumphant farewell to the Olympics.
     But it wasn't to be. Instead, his back hurting from the spill he took two days earlier in the giant slalom, Tomba skied to an achingly slow 17th place in the first run of the men's slalom, then quietly withdrew from the competition.
     One of the most gregarious, outgoing Olympians of all time didn't say a word into the microphones and tape recorders thrust in front of him. Instead, he returned to his hotel with his sister and watched the final run on television.
     This was not the kind of farewell Tomba had envisioned. He was the first skier to win medals in three Olympics.
     Saturday's slalom, the final event of the Alpine competition at the Nagano Games, was his best chance for a fourth.
     "He is very sorry to have to make this decision," said Robert Brunner, an Italian ski team official and Tomba's good friend. "He wanted to finish his fourth Olympics with a medal. But considering the physical situation, and the current placing, he realized he could not win a medal."
     Five medals -- gold in the slalom and giant slalom in 1988, gold in the giant slalom and silver in the slalom in 1992, and a silver in the slalom in 1994 -- would have to be enough.
     There already had been indications that Tomba, as he arrived in Japan, was not entirely prepared to race. A tax-evasion investigation in Italy threatened to engulf him. He had not skied well most of the World Cup season. His back was sore. He was 31.
     But this was Tomba, and no one would count him out.
     Tomba's final Olympics lasted just 1 minute, 15 seconds. Eighteen seconds into his giant slalom run on Thursday he crashed, landing on his seat, aggravating his already sore back and pulling his groin.
     Still, he insisted he would run the slalom.
     "'It is more painful for me to sit in a chair than to ski," he said.
     But as he passed the first of the 65 gates on the fog-shrouded slalom course of Mount Yakebitai, it was obvious to all that this was not the Tomba of old.
     That Tomba overpowered the course, knocking his way past the gates like a prizefighter. This Tomba was cautious as a mouse, skiing in a crouch, easing his way around the gates.
     His time of 57 seconds was 1.94 seconds slower than the leader, Thomas Sykora of Austria. Tomba had come from 1.84 seconds behind to win the silver at Lillehammer four years ago.
     At first, Tomba indicated to Brunner that he would ski the second run, even though he was relegated to the second tier of competition, after the top 15 had finished.
     "He had worked wonders in the past on the second run," Brunner said.
     Perhaps it was the mild earthquake shortly after his finish that shook him into reality. The pain was just too much, Brunner said.
     At the finish line, Tomba put on his jacket in disgust. He barely spoke to the Italian coaches or his teammates. He talked briefly with his sister and spokeswoman, Alessia Tomba, then turned his back on the army of reporters who were there to chronicle his last Olympic race.
     The Italian playboy, the man of a thousand quips, had nothing to say.
     He never turned around again, except to leave the mountain.