Born in Inverigo, province of Como, Italy, Alberto Cova was characterized by his superiority in the sprint finish, and the only way to nullify this was to set a very fast pace from the start to finish. Cova got his first fame at the 1982 European Championships in Athens, where he surprisingly outsprinted the main favourite Werner Schildhauer from East Germany, to win his first international championship title. In the next year, Cova wasn't the main favourite at the first World Championships held in Helsinki, being considered only as a possible medal winner. The 10,000 m final at Helsinki was run in slow pace, with thirteen runners still in a leading pack at the bell. With only 30 metres to go, Cova was only in fifth place, but then sprinted forward to win. Schildhauer finished in second place. The top four runners sprinted to the finish line in 0.33 seconds (see Yleisurheilun MM-kisat Helsingissä / Athletics World Championships in Helsinki, edited by the Juoksija/Runner magazine, Helsinki: 1983).
The 10,000 m final at the Los Angeles Olympics began at an even slower pace than at Helsinki. At the 6 km mark, Martti Vainio from Finland, picked up the speed. Cova managed to follow him, and Vainio couldn't sustain his own pace, so Cova swept past him after the bell and sprinted to the line to win his last international title (see, for example, Tapio Pekola et al., eds., Suuri Suomalainen Olympiakirja/The Great Finnish Olympic Book, Helsinki: Juoksija-lehti (Runner magazine)/Laaseri, 1984).
At the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart, Cova was beaten at his own game, when he was outsprinted by fellow countryman Stefano Mei on the last lap of the 10,000 m final. Cova never won a major race after that, and came tenth in his heat (thereby failing to qualify for the final) at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. This was his last international competition.
In the 1983 World Athletics Championships 10,000-metre final, there actually were seven men in the lead group at the bell (see the related video clip "Finns Near the Top" / Suomalaisia lähellä huippua in the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation YLE's Living Archives / Elävä arkisto, with the following links: Sports / Urheilu, Athletics / Yleisurheilu, World Championships / MM-kisat, 1983 World Championships / MM-kisat 1983; the website is www.yle.fi/elavaarkisto/). In the 1984 Olympics 10,000-metre final, Finland's Martti Vainio picked up the speed shortly before the 6 kilometre mark (see, for instance, The Great Olympic Book / Suuri Olympiateos, volume 4, published in Finland in 1984).