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Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Caption from LIFE. Champion's form, with the body low and arms swinging is shown by Owens for Indian sprinters.James Burke—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Track star Jesse Owens in India, 1955
Caption from LIFE. Champion's form, with the body low and arms swinging is shown by Owens for Indian sprinters.
James Burke—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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See Photos of Jesse Owens' Post-Olympic Life

Feb 19, 2016

The movie Race, opening Feb. 19, tells the story of Jesse Owens’ triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games—a victory that might never have happened had the track star not decided that his competing would be a statement against Hitler’s racist regime. But the movie only takes audiences through Owens’ return to the States, leaving his post-Olympic life on the table, another story for another day.

That story is a difficult one. As the movie makes painfully clear, Owens’ athletic feats did not exempt him from the struggles wrought by institutionalized racism in his home country—and those struggles could not be erased by any number of gold medals. As he would later say, “After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand, or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.”

He attempted to capitalize on commercial offers following his victory, but those quickly dried up. He bought a Negro League baseball team, but the league disbanded after a few short months. He worked as a gas station attendant, ran a dry cleaning business and even raced against horses—an endeavor he recognized might be perceived as degrading, but as he explained, “You can’t eat four gold medals.”

In 1955, nearly two decades after the Olympics, the U.S. State Department dispatched Owens, then 42, on a goodwill tour of India. LIFE photographer James Burke documented the trip, during which the Olympian coached Indian athletes and gave speeches to schoolchildren. The magazine called him “a practically perfect envoy in a country which has violently exaggerated ideas about the treatment of Negroes in the U.S,” hinting at the political motives that may have been at play in the decision to send him overseas, and noted that Owens “generally charmed everybody in sight."

Even so, the trip did not erase financial problems at home. Owens' life would be cut short by lung cancer in 1980. His legacy, however, would persist.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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