By Published: June 1, 2020

Men's 400 Meter finish, 1948 Olympics

CU’s first Olympian, David Bolen, pictured far right, placed fourth in the 400-meter race.

As discussions evolve concerning the rescheduled Olympic Games in Tokyo, we take a look at CU Boulder’s first Olympian: David Bolen.

Defining moments were constant throughout the 96-year-old’s life. A couple ring most important to him.

“There are two positions that I’ve had that nobody can take away from me,” Bolen (Mktg, MBA’50) told the Denver Post in 2012. “I’m an Olympian, and I’m an ambassador.”

In 1948, Bolen [pictured above, far right] became the first CU student to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. He trained while studying for his MBA in Boulder after a stellar year on the CU track and field team, which included a second-place finish against the world-record holder in the 400-meter dash at the NCAA Championships.

In 1947, CU Boulder coach Frank Potts said Bolen was “the most versatile runner I’ve ever seen.” Bolen’s time in Boulder was often challenging. He experienced segregation and discrimination — he once had to drive 30 miles to find a barber who’d cut his hair. But he made a name for himself on the track.

During the Olympic tryouts in 1948, the then 25-year-old placed second in the 400-meter dash with a time of 47.2 seconds. He took fourth place in the Olympic finals in London. Coloradans were ecstatic.

Bolen was named the 1948 Rocky Mountain area athlete of the year, and CU Boulder’s C Club, an organization for university varsity letter winners, created an award in his name to honor future CU Olympians. CU declared Nov. 20, 1948, “David Bolen Day.”

After graduation, Bolen began his career in foreign service, which led to his appointment as ambassador.

“To be a world-class athlete is something, but being in London increased my interest in the Olympics and what sports could do for world peace and prosperity and bringing people together,” he told the Post.

As ambassador to Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland starting in 1974, Bolen helped initiate what would lead to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Then as ambassador to East Germany beginning in 1977, he helped lay the foundation for the Berlin Wall’s fall.

In letters, President Richard Nixon praised Bolen’s character and ability.

When he retired in 1989, he and his late wife Betty Bolen (Art’50) returned to Boulder. He now resides in Scottsdale, Arizona.

His legacy set the stage for what is now more than 85 Buff Olympians.

At a CU business school awards ceremony in 2013 Bolen said: “In thinking about my days as the first Olympian here at the university, I believe, athletically, that a curtain of opportunity was lifted and the windows of CU were opened to the world.”

Photo courtesy International Olympic Committee/United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee