In Los Angeles, a tree with stories to tell


Indeed, after Mr Johnson won the high jump, Hitler left the stadium in Berlin before Mr Johnson received his medal, although earlier in the day he had welcomed German and Finnish winners. Historians have debated Hitler’s motivations for leaving the stadium early – at the time some people close to him said he had a prior appointment – International Olympic Committee officials told Hitler that he must either greet all winners or none . For the rest of the games, he chose none.

Black athletes were also shunned at home when President Franklin Roosevelt only welcomed white athletes into the White House. After the Games, Mr Johnson worked as a mailman and then as a merchantman. He died in 1946 at the age of 32 after falling ill on board a ship.

But his tree lived on, cared for by his relatives and later a family from Mexico who bought the house in the 1990s. It is one of the few remaining “Olympic Oaks”, as they are now called. In Berlin, 129 oak seedlings were distributed – one for each gold medal – and today, according to research by Mr Mayer and Ms Anderson, about two dozen remain in the US, Germany, Argentina, Finland, the UK, New Zealand and Switzerland. Some were destroyed after World War II began and the full horrors of Nazism became clear, some were thrown into the sea as athletes sailed home, and others were planted and later died.

For Mr. Mayer, Mr. Johnson’s tree was an artistic inspiration.

A few years ago he came to Los Angeles for a residency MAK Center, the Californian branch of a Viennese museum, with the idea of ​​making art out of the tree. The result was a multimedia installation which was exhibited in Vienna, Berlin and Poznan, Poland. It featured seedlings cloned from acorns collected from the tree and the telling of stories connected to the history of the tree, including interviews with the Mexican family.


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