From being the first CU-Boulder student to compete in the Olympic Games to a career as an ambassador, David Bolen (Mktg’50, MBA’50) is a man of many firsts.
It began with a neighborhood Easter egg hunt in Louisiana when Bolen discovered he was faster than the other kids. He had a natural gift for what he likes to call “foot speed,” but his main incentive for running was to be college educated.
Bolen began his career at CU-Boulder when track and field coach Frank Potts recruited him in 1947 after he served in World War II. He had attended Southern University in New Orleans before the war.
At the time Bolen faced a climate of racism. At CU he could not live in the men’s dormitories, so he stayed with a lady who worked in a sorority house who fed him leftovers.
Despite racial hurdles Bolen began training, starting with the 100-yard dash, 200-meter dash and finally the 400 meters where he would one day prove to be the fastest American.
At age 25 Bolen made the U.S. Olympic team and competed in the 1948 Summer Games in London. He received fourth place in the 400-meter run with a time of 47.2 seconds.
But it was his character that caught the attention of President Nixon who appointed Bolen ambassador to Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland in 1974.
Three years later President Carter appointed Bolen ambassador to East Germany, making him the first black ambassador to a country behind the Iron Curtain in Europe.
As ambassador he helped lay the groundwork for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the freeing of Nelson Mandela from prison that led to the fall of South Africa’s apartheid.
“I am proud of my father for being part of the American dream — a dream where he didn’t have a golden spoon in his mouth,” Bolen’s daughter Cynthia Bolen-Nieland says. “He never had anything given to him. He had to work for his success and he won a lot of life’s races.”
Bolen’s legacy continues through the David Bolen Olympic Award and Scholarship. He established the award when he returned from the games in 1948. Today he contributes money through this scholarship for students who compete in the most recent Olympic Games, are of good academic standing and major in business, science or engineering.
“I never liked the fact that athletes were considered to be dumbbells,” Bolen says. “The scholarship rewards the intelligent athlete. It is meant to improve the performance of American business in the global sense, starting with the students.”
Photo courtesy CU Heritage Center