In Los Angeles, a tree with stories to tell
In fact, it was after Mr Johnson won the high jump that Hitler left the stadium in Berlin, before Mr Johnson received his medal, even though earlier in the day he had hailed the winners Germans and Finns. Historians have debated Hitler’s motives for leaving the stadium early – at the time some close to him said he had a prior appointment – International Olympic Committee officials told Hitler he had to either salute all the winners or none. For the rest of the games, he chose none.
Back home, black athletes were also shunned, when President Franklin Roosevelt only welcomed white athletes to the White House. After the Games, Mr. Johnson worked as a postman and then as a merchant seaman. He died, aged 32 in 1946, after falling ill on board a ship.
But his tree survived, cared for by his relatives and, later, by a Mexican family 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 saplings were distributed – one for each gold medal – and today there are about two dozen left, according to research by Mr. Mayer and Ms. Anderson, in the United States, Germany, in Argentina, Finland, Great Britain, New Zealand Zealand and Switzerland. Some were destroyed after the start of World War II and the horrors of Nazism became clear, some were thrown overboard when the athletes returned home, and others were planted and died later.
For Mr. Mayer, Mr. Johnson’s tree provided artistic inspiration.
Several years ago he came to Los Angeles for a residency at the MAK Center, the California outpost of a Vienna museum, with the idea of creating art from the tree. The result was a multimedia installation that was exhibited in Vienna, Berlin and Poznan, Poland. It incorporated seedlings cloned from acorns harvested from the tree and the telling of stories related to the history of the tree, including interviews with the Mexican family.