LES MENUIRES, France -- The question came to Alberto Tomba toward the end of the news confer-ence. He had won the silver medal in the Olympic slalom yesterday, not another gold but still not bad, and he had been answering questions for about 20 minutes.
An American reporter raised her hand. "Alberto," she said, "it was reported in the Italian press that after the last Olympics you quickly fell into a life of eating, drinking and womanizing. Do you anticipate it happening again?"
Tomba paused and, after speaking only Italian throughout the news conference, lowered his mouth to the microphone and answered in perfect English.
"I start tomorrow," he said, the smile on his face almost a punishable offense.
So it goes with Alberto Tomba, the Italian ski star with the oversized legend, who can't help looming over his sport much as John Wayne did over westerns. Even on a day when he was beaten, as he was by Norway's Finn Christian (Not Mick) Jagge yesterday, Tomba was at the center of the story.
He skied terribly in the first of the two heats of the event on a warm, sunny day. The edges on his skis were too sharp and he was afraid of falling and wound up in sixth place, a whopping 1.58 seconds behind Jagge.
In a sport in which races often are won by hundredths of a second, it amounted to being down four touchdowns at halftime. But Tomba, winner of two gold medals in the 1988 Olympics and another here in the giant slalom, almost pulled off a skiing miracle in the second heat.
He blazed down the course in his spectacular, physical style, which bears no resemblance to that of the other skiers in the field. They're mostly thin and quick and angle around the gates. He is burly and thunder-thighed and brutalizes the gates.
He reached the finish line in first place and turned to watch the last five skiers come down the mountain trying to beat his time. As the first four crossed the finish line, their times all slower than Tomba's, the usual party of thousands of Italian fans erupted in particularly frenzied horn-blowing and flag-waving. Their man was about to pull off a big one.
But then came Jagge, a thin 25-year-old with a history of falling in big races. When he was a third of the way down the course, and his split time was shown on the scoreboard, the horn-blowing ceased, the flags stopped waving and the other fans roared. Jagge was a half-second ahead of Tomba's pace.
Plainly fading as he came down the mountain, but hanging on, Jagge was still a third of a second ahead of Tomba's pace at the second split. There was a nervous cheer, then silence. Skiing, the worst of spectator sports, suddenly had all the drama of a basketball buzzer-beater.
When Jagge crossed the finish line, everyone, including Jagge and Tomba, turned their eyes from the mountain to the scoreboard. And Jagge raised his arms. He had won by .28 of a second.
"I knew Alberto would have a great run the second heat, and I told myself a hundred times between heats that I could still beat him," Jagge said. "I was nervous. But once I was on the course, I felt good. It is very exciting to win."
Tomba shook Jagge's hand warmly and was able to shrug off the defeat. A sixth-place finish might have started a round of criticism in Italy that he was too much of a party boy, but he knew his legend was untouchable as a silver medalist after three golds.
Tomba's reputation contrasted with that of the winner, who, according to several Norwegian reporters, conquered nervousness and a fear of big races when he fell in love last year.
Tomba was familiar with Jagge, who defeated him in a World Cup race in Italy in December, in front of 30,000 Tomba fans.
"My first heat was perfect," Jagge said. "I think on this day, watching Alberto's second heat, I needed to be perfect."
Yesterday the ski press was having a big laugh over the fact that Tomba had cut in front of ticket-buying skiers in the lift line to get up the mountain to the second heat, while Jagge had waited in line with all the amateurs.
"It is the right thing to do," Jagge said. "I hope maybe Alberto will start doing this, too."
Said Tomba: "But I have these people always coming after me for autographs. I must keep moving."
Tomba then insisted he was joking about taking up what the reporter called "eating, drinking and womanizing" now that the Olympics were over. He travels with two coaches, a trainer, a psychologist and a dietitian.
"I did relax very much in 1988, but I am 4 years older now, and I know I what I must do to keep in shape and keep winning races," he said. "I will enjoy myself today and maybe tomorrow and then I must make sacrifices. Then I can relax again in April and May."