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    Saturday, February 21, 1998

    Tomba ends Olympic career with disappointment

     SHIGA KOGEN, Japan (AP) -- Alberto Tomba dropped to the ground, resting his sore backside in the snow. He sat for a minute, exhausted and disappointed, his back to the finish line.
     That's the way the flamboyant Italian La Bomba ended a remarkable Olympic career spanning 10 years and five medals -- three gold.
     He arrived in Japan trying to do what no one else has ever done -- win an Alpine medal in his fourth consecutive Winter Olympics. His effort lasted all of 75 seconds.
     The man who beseeched fans back home in Italy to stay up through the night, so they could see his races live on TV, gave them very little to watch.
     Slowed by back and groin injuries from a spill in the giant slalom two days earlier, Tomba skied sluggishly to 17th place on the first run of the slalom Saturday (Friday night EST) and then skipped the second run.
     He had been favored to win a medal in the slalom. Instead, he watched the race from a hotel room while a 22-year-old Norwegian with psychedelic hair raced to the gold.
     The 31-year-old Tomba just cannot keep up any more with youngsters like orange-haired Habs-Petter Buraas.
     "I think (Tomba) is the greatest skier we have had since Ingemar Stenmark. He was always the best. Now he's a little bit older," said Thomas Sykora, the Austrian slalom bronze medalist. "If I had so much success like him, I would be very proud."
     Tomba's final Olympics consisted of two unfinished races. He crashed 18 seconds into the giant slalom, landing hard on his backside, and dropped out of the slalom after a disappointing time of 57 seconds on the first run.
     His previous Winter Games had been filled with medals. He was the 1988 Olympic champion in the slalom and giant slalom, and became the first Alpine skier to win the same event twice when he took gold in the 1992 giant slalom.
     Tomba also won silver medals in slalom at the 1992 and 1994 games.
     Reigning slalom world champion Tom Stiansen of Norway, who finished fourth Saturday, said it was sad Tomba had to drop out of his last Olympic race.
     "But he has enough gold medals," Stiansen added. "It is time for the other guys to earn some."
     Tomba avoided reporters after the slalom and went for treatment on his back and groin. Italian team officials said Tomba will not travel to South Korea for World Cup slalom and giant slalom races next weekend, but instead will head home to Italy.
     They said he hoped to be able to race in the World Cup finals in Crans Montana, Switzerland, in mid-March.
     Since skiing into prominence in 1987 with a bronze medal in the giant slalom at the world championships, the brash Tomba has been a superstar on and off the slopes.
     He has been photographed with the Pope, politicians and with an array of girlfriends. He has regaled the world with tales of late-night partying. Legions of fans have followed him around the globe.
     Tomba has strongly hinted this will be his last season on the World Cup circuit. Though he promises to be at the 1999 world championships in Vail, Colo., he won't specify whether it'll be "as a skier or a spectator."
     "He has been the best skier for 10 years. All of us other guys tried to beat him," said Ole Christian Furuseth, who won silver in Saturday's slalom.
     "I will miss him, for sure, when he stops skiing. He is really a nice person. There are a lot of bad stories about him, but I know him as a gentle man."