Despite the bite in the air, today is the first day of track practice at James Ford Rhodes High School, on the west side of Cleveland. One by one the athletes push open the school's rickety metal doors and wander over to the giant oak tree that stands behind the school. Although the grass beneath the tree is littered with trash and weeds, this plot is where Rhodes students prefer to meet.
This is the 10th season in which coach Tim Franzinger has opened spring practice by telling the story of the magnificent oak. The tree, he explains, was given to the school in 1936 by Jesse Owens as a monument to perhaps the greatest Olympic achievement of all time...the Greatest Olympic achievement of all time. The athletes lean in to listen, staring up at the 60-foot tree, tracing the path of its limbs over the bleachers toward the cinder track where, they are told, Owens once trained.
Racing in the 100-meter final of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Owens needed just 10.3 seconds to explode Adolf Hitler's theory of Aryan supremacy in all things. "His was an achievement that transcended athletics," Franzinger says. Owens, who lived in Cleveland from the age of nine, won four gold medals—in the 100-and 200-meter dashes, the broad jump and the 4 X 100-meter relay. In Berlin, each of 130 gold medalists was given a one-year-old oak seedling as a gift from the German people. Owens chose to plant his three trees (the fourth, won by the relay team, was planted at USC) in places that marked his development as a runner and student.
Owens never attended Rhodes, but its track was one of his favorite practice spots. His second tree was planted at his alma mater East Tech High, in Cleveland. The third went to Ohio State University, where he was an All-America sprinter. Today only the tree at Rhodes High still stands. Owens, who died in 1980, used the oak as a metaphor in speeches he made after the Olympics. "He always talked about the tree's grandeur, its roots and its pride," says his daughter, Marlene Owens Rankin. "I like the symbolism of his tree, that what he stood for, like the tree, still survives."
Sixty years after the Berlin Games, 16 Olympic oaks survive in eight countries, including Japan, New Zealand and Germany. There are trees nearly 70 feet high at the Palermo Polo Field in Argentina and at the 1928 Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. But the fate of almost 100 trees—13 in the U.S.—is unknown. And although 24 U.S. athletes won gold medals in 1936, only four oaks are known to be alive in this country.
Two of the U.S.'s four living oaks are within walking distance of each other. The first, won by the U.S. 4 X 100-meter relay team—Owens ran the first leg—and eventually dedicated to team member and Trojan sprinter Foy Draper, stands in Associates Park at USC. On the other side of the park is fellow USC alumnus Kenneth Carpenter's tree, honoring his record-breaking discus throw.
The limbs of runner John Woodruff's tree stretch over the high school football stadium in Connellsville, Pa. Woodruff, the 800-meter champ, still visits the tree, which is more than 60 feet tall.
Some of the trees were destroyed during and after World War II because of their "Hitler Tree" reputation. Suburban development killed several. Others died from natural causes. Wrestler Frank Lewis's tree, at Oklahoma State, died in 1990 after being struck by lightning. And, sadly, the tree that could have been the 1996 Atlanta Games' link to the '36 Games was felled by the same carelessness that claimed a number of others. The tree, won by 110-meter hurdles champion Forrest (Spec) Towns, flourished on the University of Georgia campus. Twice the oak was transplanted; a third move killed it.
The oak at Rhodes High, like Owens himself, has proved resilient—perhaps even magical. Last June the boys' team won the Ohio state title, winning by the second-highest point total for Division II in state-meet history. "We stretch out under there and wonder if we could ever do what he did, ever mean what he meant," says student council president and two-time state relay champ Wayne Wren. "It makes you wonder. Maybe, he's looking down on this tree."