Tom Archdeacon: Still treasuring Barcelona 25 years after Olympics

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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25th anniversary of local athletes in the 1992 Olympics

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

LaVonna Martin-Floreal ended up with two keepsakes from the Barcelona Olympics.

One was her silver medal.

The other?

Her husband.

This coming Tuesday marks 25 years since the Olympic Games opened in Barcelona, Spain in 1992. While LaVonna said she hadn’t realized the anniversary was right around the corner, she wasn’t surprised.

“I knew Edrick and I were coming up on our 25th wedding anniversary,” she said from her home in Lexington, Kentucky. “He and I met him in the Olympic village in Barcelona and before the Games were over, he’d asked me to marry him.

“It’s a pretty amazing story.”

There were a lot of them coming out of those Games. Over the years, I covered 12 Olympics on four continents and Barcelona remains my favorite for several reasons.

We had a large contingent of athletes from the Miami Valley there — eight in all — and three medaled:

LaVonna, a Trotwood-Madison High School graduate, took silver in the 100-meter hurdles.

Steve Bourdow, who had graduated from Stebbins High but was living in New Orleans, won silver in the sailing competition.

Joe Greene, another Stebbins grad who then starred at Ohio State, won a bronze long jump medal and the hearts of the entire Estadi Olimpic crowd with his effervescent attitude and his rise-to-the moment effort.

Along with covering the competition, I wrote several stories about the Catalan countryside and especially the city and that led to one sequence of events that left quite a mark — literally.

In a nutshell it involved a scrap with an Algerian street thug. I ended up bloodied and robbed, but thanks to an unforeseen turn, it became my best Olympic memory ever.

First, though, the athletes — especially LaVonna, whose Barcelona story is the best of all.

“The U.S. had the best section in the whole Olympic Village,” she recalled. “We all had TVs in our living rooms. The Canadians — Edrick competed for Canada — had to go downstairs in their building to watch TV. So a lot of athletes came and hung out with us.”

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1993: Lavonna Martin-Floreal slides over the hurdles at the Mobil One Track and Field event. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

1993: Lavonna Martin-Floreal slides over the hurdles at the Mobil One Track and Field event. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

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1993: Lavonna Martin-Floreal slides over the hurdles at the Mobil One Track and Field event. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

Although Edrick Floreal was an NCAA triple jump champion at Arkansas, she said she’d never heard of him. Her roommate, Tonja Buford (now Bailey) — who had teamed with her on the Northwest Track Club in Dayton and starred at Meadowdale High and the University of Illinois — knew him and helped make the introductions.

“They hit it off right away,” Tonja said from Austin, Texas, where she’s the associate head coach of the University of Texas track and field team.

LaVonna agreed: “I felt like I heard something in my heart. I believe that came from God. I distinctly heard a voice that said. ‘This is your husband.’ ”

But for a few days she put her other love first.

She was 9 when she began hurdling for Northwest, the club her parents, Lefty and Brenda Martin, have guided to greatness for decades. At Trotwood-Madison, she almost single-handedly lifted the Rams to two state titles. She then starred at Tennessee, won gold at the 1987 Pan Games, ran in the Seoul Olympics a year later and was the No. 1-rated 100-meter hurdler in the nation in 1991.

That’s when she was hit with a suspension for testing positive for a diuretic, which, it turned out, her Russian coach had slipped her without her knowledge.

Devastated, LaVonna returned to Dayton, where her family, her church and the community showed unwavering support.

And after a series of back-and-forth reversals, the IAAF finally understood and lifted the suspension just a few months before the Olympic Trials. That reopened the door to Barcelona and LaVonna hurdled through it.

With her mother and 63,000 others watching from the Estadi Olimpic stands, she won silver in a race were fellow U.S. front-runner Gail Devers crashed over the last hurdle and Greece’s Voula Patoulidou slipped by for gold.

As for the other keepsake, she said that came soon after the race:

“We were on the beach right there in the Village and Edrick was like, ‘I think I want to marry you.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I think I want to marry you, too!’ ”

Right after the Games, Tonja said she and LaVonna toured Europe competing at various meets: “We were in Italy and some other places and she kept looking for wedding dresses.”

LaVonna said they initially planned to marry a year later: “But we ended up just doing it on New Year’s Day at our pastor’s home in Dayton.”

Tonja was with them that day and now says: “From the day they met they haven’t been separated.”

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Tonja Buford (center) uses her mother Georgianna’s back as support as she and Lavonna Martin (behind left) sign autographs at Courthouse Square in Dayton following the Olympic Parade in August 1992. FILE

Tonja Buford (center) uses her mother Georgianna’s back as support as she and Lavonna Martin (behind left) sign autographs at Courthouse Square in Dayton following the Olympic Parade in August 1992. FILE

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Tonja Buford (center) uses her mother Georgianna’s back as support as she and Lavonna Martin (behind left) sign autographs at Courthouse Square in Dayton following the Olympic Parade in August 1992. FILE

Edrick is now the University of Kentucky track coach. The couple has two children: EJ played basketball for the Wildcats for three seasons and now has switched to the UK track team, where he’s returning from a torn Achilles’ tendon.

Daughter Mimi — who LaVonna said “is 20,000 times better than I was” — has now bypassed sports and is on the academic route at the University of Louisville.

LaVonna said Tonja remains her best friend: “We might talk three times a day.”

Memorable effort

Tonja Buford — she wouldn’t marry NFL wide receiver Victor Bailey until 1995 — was 21 in Barcelona, the youngest member of the U.S. track and field team.

“Truthfully I couldn’t even believe that I was there,” she said. “I hadn’t even known of the Olympics before Seoul in 1988, when LaVonna competed there. After that I was more focused on the ’96 Games because realistically that’s where I could do something.”

She had been a four-time state hurdling champ in high school and won 25 Big Ten titles — and the 1992 NCAA 400-meter hurdles championship — with the Illini, but still no one saw her as an Olympian until she stunned everyone at the Trials in New Orleans.

The only thing as memorable as that was the effort of folks in the Miami Valley to send her mom to Barcelona to see her compete.

A product of an orphanage and then a teen mother, Georgiana Buford eventually divorced and raised six children — including daughter Crystal who now has battled muscular dystrophy for over 30 years — on her own with no public assistance.

Although she worked two jobs, the cost of an Olympic trip made Barcelona impossible until a Dayton Daily News story highlighted the situation and the public raised the funds for her to go.

“It was a crazy experience for my mom,” Tonja laughed. “It was her first time on an airplane.”

But Georgiana — who eventually would go on to get a college degree — tackled the Olympic opportunity full bore. One of her primary focuses was the basketball Dream Team, which debuted in ’92.

“She met everybody but Jordan,” Tonja laughed. “Other people would be nervous and be like ‘Oh there’s Scottie Pippen and there’s Charles Barkley. Should I ask them to take a picture?’

“Not her. She was like, ‘Boy, get over here and take a picture with me!’ And they all did.”

Tonja would advance through the first heats, but then just missed moving on to the semifinals.

That night I remember standing with her and her mother on Montjuic, the famed hill in Barcelona that overlooks the harbor and is the site of Estadi Olimpic. As the Olympic flame flickered above and the colored waters of the Magic Fountain danced behind her, the voice of Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury filled the air from speakers everywhere.

“I know I can say I was an Olympian, but I wanted to say I was an Olympic finalist,” Tonja said quietly. “Still I know I’ve got a lot of running ahead of me — maybe two or three Olympics — and one of them will be better than this.”

She was right. She’d win bronze in Atlanta in four years and then run in the 2000 Sydney Games, as well.

After a pro career, she became a coach at the University of Illinois and then, for the past five years, at Texas, where she briefly served as the co-interim head coach. She assisted the U.S. Olympic teams that competed at the 2012 London Games and the 2016 Rio Olympics and last December was named the Nike coach of the year. In eight days she takes three of her athletes to London to compete in the IAAF World Championships.

She and Victor have two children. Son V.J.is a freshman basketball player at Oregon and daughter Victoria is a high school freshman.

Stealing the show

Several athletes with Miami Valley ties were in Barcelona.

Bourdow — who once had prepped with a sailing club at Cowan Lake State Park near Wilmington — teamed with Paul Foerster to win the Flying Dutchman class.

Grace Jividen, who left Carroll High her senior year to finish her schooling in Colorado Springs and further develop at the Olympic Training Center, won twice in judo at Barcelona and just missed making the bronze medal match.

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Grace Jividen

Grace Jividen

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Grace Jividen

Central State had two athletes there. Hurdler Deon Hemmings wouldn’t shine until later, winning gold in the 400-meter hurdles at Atlanta four years later and then adding two more medals in Sydney. CSU sprinter Neil de Siliva competed for Trinidad and Tobago and Mark Coleman, who attended Miami University, finished seventh in the freestyle wrestling and later became a UFC champ.

But no one put on a show like Joe Greene.

From a field of 53 jumpers he advanced to the finals where he initially was overshadowed by the event’s two superstars: Carl Lewis already had six Olympic medals to his name and Mike Powell was the world record holder.

After faulting on his first two tries and turning in an unimpressive jump on his next, it looked as if Joe was about to fade.

That’s when he strode to the top of the runway, raised up his arms and, flashing that megawatt smile, began to clap his hands together in a slow rhythmic cadence. The crowd picked up on it and soon the entire stadium — including Joe’s dad who had surprised him and flown in from Dayton — began to clap.

Fueled by the rousing support, Joe stepped back, roared down the runway and soared to a 27-foot, 4 ½-inch jump that won bronze.

Once back home, the embrace of the crowd continued when he and the other Dayton Olympians got a parade through the city.

Riverside eventually would name a road after Greene. Stebbins High named its new track after him and AT&T featured him in an ad.

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1992: Joe Greene jumps through the air during the US Olympic Trials. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

1992: Joe Greene jumps through the air during the US Olympic Trials. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

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1992: Joe Greene jumps through the air during the US Olympic Trials. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

He married photogenic German long jumper Susan Tiedke, often trained in South Africa and competed across Europe. Although he would struggle with a serious immune system illness, he again won the long jump bronze at the Atlanta Games in 1996.

But soon after that his fortunes took a downturn. There were more health issues. He and Tiedke divorced. And thanks to a business partner’s failings, a company he was involved in went bankrupt.

Living in Las Vegas during part of that time, he said he initially took his two Olympic medals to Rick Harrison, the owner of the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, for a loan. But after two years he was unable to buy them back.

Harrison’s shop became the setting of the popular Pawn Stars show on the History Channel and the first episode featured Greene’s medals, which were displayed on the wall next to the story I wrote from that glorious day in Barcelona in 1992.

In recent years Joe has rebounded wonderfully.

Remarried, he now lives in a Columbus suburb, recruits nursing home administrators nationwide and has just gotten involved in the Vita-life company that — founded by two European Olympic friends — offers natural healthcare and wellness products.

As for his medals, he said he has not retrieved them:

“I believe other people like the Olympic Committee went there and tried to get them but they wouldn’t sell them. The Lord willing, if I ever get them back, I get them back. At one time that was my life, but to be honest with you I’m at peace with a lot of things I wasn’t in the past.

“The thing that really means something to me now is giving back to society, helping people and bettering yourself. Do that, the rest doesn’t matter.”

Best of humanity

Although it was no resemblance to anything Joe Greene did, I, too, made a long jump in Barcelona.

I was talking on a pay phone along Las Ramblas, the city’s mile-long promenade that winds beneath a canopy of leafy trees, and is flanked by old churches, flower vendors, cafes, newspaper kiosks displaying raunchy porn and a grand market from whose meat hooks hang slaughtered pigs and the bulls who lost to Sunday’s matadors.

More than a walkway, Las Ramblas is a paved circus of artists, panhandlers, fortune tellers, finch and parrot sellers and, on this day, a persistent guy who wanted change to use the phone next to me.

I was in the midst of talking to my folks back here in Ohio and suddenly he reared back and punched me in the chest. My leather hand bag — which foolishly held all but $50 of my money, my camera, hotel key and plane ticket home — fell to the ground and instantly the arm of his accomplice snaked out from behind me. He grabbed the bag and began to run.

I spat out a mouthful of expletives — “Whaaaat did he just say?’ my mother gasped — dropped the receiver and, realizing the sprinter was long gone, went after the guy who’d punched me. As he tried disappearing into the crowd, I dived and took him to the ground.

A fistfight ensued. My shirt was ripped, my cheek cut, my lip fattened, but I held onto him and we all ended up at the police station. My empty bag was found down the street. My assailant — part of an Algerian gang — went to jail and I returned to the street trying to stay afloat in the waves of panic.

I was on the other side of the world, was staying several more days and had lost everything.

That evening I made my way to Casa Leopoldo, a restaurant where I’d eaten regularly, and when Rosa Gil, the woman who ran the place, saw my face, she wanted details. After I told her, she said sadly: “This is not Barcelona.”

She slipped off as I ate and soon was back with a smile and a solution:

Every night I would eat for free at her restaurant. Breakfasts at another place would be gratis, as would evening drinks at a neighborhood tavern. She and her friends just wanted me to experience Barcelona and the Catalan people as they knew them.

I, too, ended up with an enduring keepsake.

Face to fist with some of the worst in humanity, I’d found the very best.

Like LaVonna I, too, treasure Barcelona.

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