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    Saturday, February 21, 1998

    Picabo, Tomba and Herminator provide lasting Alpine images

     SHIGA KOGEN, Japan (AP) -- Picabo Street singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with a gold medal around her neck. Alberto Tomba lying in the snow, grabbing his sore back. Katja Seizinger leaping off the victory stand.
     Despite days of snow, rain, fog and wind that caused maddening delays and scheduling nightmares, the Alpine skiing events provided some of the most compelling images of the Nagano Games.
     None, though, could match the horrifying sight of Hermann Maier flying sideways through the air and crashing through two safety nets. Only to walk away, wave to fans and win two gold medals within the next six days.
     Austrian men and German women hogged the medals. Other than Street's win in the super-G, the Americans were a washout. But nothing dominated the Alpine competition like the weather.
     Six days of racing were wiped out. The postponements led to the first tripleheader in Alpine history, as well as a doubleheader the same week. Perhaps the biggest heroes were the hundreds of soldiers and volunteers who worked throughout the night shoveling the slopes.
     "What happened here was exactly what we had foreseen. We knew the weather conditions would be lousy and we would have to change more than we would in Europe. People got up every day at 3 o'clock in the morning, and there were postponements and postponements," said Gian Franco Kasper, secretary general of the international ski federation.
     "This was extraordinary. It's incredible how they worked. I am sure that in Europe you couldn't, under those circumstances, have carried out the races."
     Luckily for beleaguered officials and skiers, the next Olympics will be in Salt Lake City -- where the weather is much less quirky, and snowmaking is much more common than in Japan.
     Having the next Olympics on home turf should benefit the Americans, and they need the help. The best finish by a U.S. man was Daron Rahlves' seventh place in the super-G. No U.S. woman came close to a medal other than Street.
     Street, wearing her downhill skis, shocked the favored Germans in the super-G. She shrieked in delight as each of the favorites came down the hill, failing to beat her time.
     But in her specialty, the downhill, Street pulled off another surprise. Usually fearless, she skied cautiously and barely missed a medal.
     That was in sharp contrast to Maier, who epitomized the concept of fearlessness by getting back on his skis and winning the super-G just three days after landing on his head in a dramatic downhill crash that drew gasps in the press room at the bottom of the course.
     Maier won the giant slalom three days after that, living up to his reputation as The Herminator -- earned with his numerous wins on the World Cup circuit this season and his go-for-broke style on the slopes.
     Seizinger became the first person to successfully defend a downhill title and then led a 1-2-3 German sweep of the women's combined event. She became just the second woman with three Olympic Alpine golds.
     Three days later, Deborah Compagnoni matched that feat. She won the women's giant slalom by a whopping 1.8 seconds for her third Olympic gold. It came one day after Compagnoni took silver in the slalom.
     The last Alpine event featured the end of Tomba's glorious Olympic career, a decade-long run that included five medals in three Winter Games. It ended in disappointment and pain for the 31-year-old Tomba.
     Two days after tumbling out of the giant slalom and landing hard on his back, Tomba dropped out of the slalom after a sluggish first run. Instead of becoming the first person to win an Alpine medal in four consecutive Olympics, he watched the slalom on TV in his hotel room.
     As with any event that happens only once every four years, there's often a passing of the torch in Alpine skiing at the Olympics. The departure of Tomba, and the emergence of the 25-year-old Maier, is such a case.
     "I think (Tomba) is the greatest skier we have had since Ingemar Stenmark," said slalom bronze medalist Thomas Sykora. "And now we have Hermann Maier."