A Place in History
Jerome Biffle wants to be remembered.
For the thousands and thousands of students he counseled at East High School between 1962 and 1992, that won't be a problem. "Oh, Lord, there's been quite a few," Biffle says. "I can't count them." When they run into him around town, they'll say, "If it hadn't been for you, Mr. Biffle, I wouldn't have gone on to college."
Biffle would like to be remembered for something else, too. Fifty years ago, on a rainy summer day in Helsinki, Finland, he leapt 24 feet, 10.03 inches to claim an Olympic gold medal in the long jump. With that jump, Biffle, who is now 73, became the first Coloradan to win a medal in the games, and the moment ensured his place in history as one of an elite group of people to reach the pinnacle of athletic competition.
At least he thought it did. But when Mayor Wellington Webb's office sent out invitations to an Olympic Torch ceremony that will be held on the steps of City Hall on January 30, Biffle wasn't included. He and his wife, Beverly, and their daughter, Cynthia, found out about the ceremony by reading the newspaper, and it took them by surprise, especially since the Biffles have known the Webbs since the 1950s -- when both Wellington and Wilma were students at Manual High School, where Beverly was a teacher and a counselor herself. Even more baffling was that Biffle had been honored by the mayor just five years earlier during a city-sponsored rally for swimmer Amy Van Dyken, who'd won four gold medals in the 1996 Summer Olympics.
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The reason the city gave for the oversight was even more surprising. "After they apologized," Cynthia says, "the mayor's office said they got their list of Olympians living in Colorado from the Colorado chapter of the Olympic alumni committee, and the Colorado chapter said they got their list from the U.S. Olympic alumni committee, which is in Colorado Springs. And that office said the only information they had on Daddy was his name, his date of birth and his place of birth. They didn't even know that he won a gold medal. Apparently if you don't call them after you've won your medal, they just sort of forget about you and don't bother to update their records.
"It sort of rocked my world when I found out about that," she adds. "You'd think that if nothing else, when you win a gold medal, you are going to be memorialized in history. Apparently not. Apparently when they are done with one Olympics, they just move on to the next. I don't even think they document this stuff."
The truth is, they don't. Or they didn't until 1996, when Harvey Schiller, the former executive director of the United States Olympic Committee, came up with the idea of an Alumni Relations office. A year later, the organization hired Cindy Stinger, a three-time Olympian in the sport of team handball, to run the office. But getting started wasn't easy. "I realized, wow, there is no database. There wasn't even a foundation on which to build," Stinger says. "We'd basically kicked the alumni to the curb."
With a four-year budget totaling $1.6 million, Stinger set out to find thousands of Olympians -- athletes, coaches, trainers, doctors, managers, team leaders -- who'd participated in the games over more than a century. The first thing she did was mail out a newsletter to the people whose addresses she did have. "They had been neglected for so long, the information was obsolete," she recalls. "I had more mail come back to me that I had get there. Now, out of 5,000 people on the mailing list, I might get back fifty or a hundred."
Stinger also established an 800 line for alumni, organized a handful of reunions and sponsored fifteen state chapters, including the Colorado one, which is run out of Steamboat Springs by former Olympic skier Hank Kashiwa. Next month, in Salt Lake City, she will oversee the Alumni Reunion Center, where former Olympians can get to know each other. "We need more money and more resources, but in the meantime, we're doing what we can," she says. "These athletes created the moments we all cherish and brought the spirit of Olympianism to the communities where they all live. We are trying very hard to get them involved now."
About 500 people are still unaccounted for, though. "I'd never heard of Jerome Biffle before the last couple of days," Stinger admits. "He must not communicate with other athletes. There's 270 Olympians in Colorado who receive updates on what the Colorado chapter is doing. You would think that he might have had lunch with one of them and heard about us. That's the only way we can do it. We'll send him everything up to this point that he hasn't received. We're certainly proud of what he did in Helsinki, and we'll do everything we can to bring him back in and make him feel important again.
"If you think about the number of athletes who have competed since 1892, there is a good chance that some of them will fall through the cracks," she adds. "It was an Olympian oversight, but it doesn't happen very often. It's up to them to keep us updated. We just didn't have a good address for him."
Biffle's address in Park Hill has been the same for nearly forty years, however, and not a month goes by that someone doesn't use it to send a letter asking for his autograph. "They found him. They sent the letters right here," Beverly says. "Most of them come from Europe, especially from the Scandinavian countries. A lot of people around the world collect autographs. We assumed they had a central source that they went to.
"He's lived here all his life," she continues. "It's not like he's moved around a lot or moved across the country. He's been a name in Colorado for a long time. Why [the USOC], which portrays the Olympics as an historical event, would have been so casual about keeping records, especially of those who medaled, is just mind-boggling to me."
After the '52 games, Biffle finished his tour with the U.S. Army, which had drafted him shortly after he graduated from the University of Denver. The next year, he got married and re-enrolled at DU, where he earned a teaching certificate and a master's degree in guidance and counseling. He started out at Cole Elementary School before getting a job at his alma matter, East, just as it was beginning the desegregation process and looking for black teachers and counselors.
In the early '70s, Mayor Bill McNichols asked Biffle to serve on the board of directors for the 1976 Winter Olympics, which had been awarded to Denver. Biffle refused.
"I want very much to do whatever I can to make these games the best in history, but I cannot in conscience accept an appointment made by a committee that is not broadly representative of the total Denver community," Biffle wrote Mayor McNichols. "Anyone who is familiar with the basic principles underlying the modern Olympic games knows that they are viewed as a vehicle by which people from all races, religions, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds can come together in an effort to forge the bonds of better human understanding and human respect on an international basis. I feel that these principles have been violated by the process used in presenting the initial bid for the winter games."
Biffle's letter continued: "At no time during the planning stages were any representatives from the minority community invited to participate. The group which made the formal request to authorities in Washington and to the International Olympic Committee in Europe were all white."
Ultimately, it didn't matter who served on that Olympics board: Colorado became the first and only venue to reject the Olympics when the state's voters banned any public subsidy for the 1976 games.
In 1992, Biffle retired from East; five years later, he joined in the city's Van Dyken parade. And next Saturday, he will again be recognized by Denver officials who have, very belatedly, invited him to be a part of the torch-bearer festivities. Despite failing health and some frustration over his omission from the USOC alumni roster, Biffle plans to be there.
"You'd think it would, but it didn't really make me angry," he says.
And that's a relief to Andrew Hudson, Mayor Webb's spokesman. A Manual graduate himself who had Beverly Biffle as a counselor, Hudson was embarrassed by the oversight. "I immediately called Mrs. Biffle and said it was in no way meant as disrespect," Hudson says.
"He was part of the 1997 celebration, and we want him on stage again with the mayor and the governor. He's an Olympic hero, and he's also a hero in terms of all the thousands of kids he mentored at East High."
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