Long before color barriers fell for athletes Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, Marshall W. "Major" Taylor became the first American black athlete to gain international fame.
Uh, who? Tune in tonight's "Tracks of Glory" (8 p.m., WNUV-Channel 54) to learn the story of the turn-of-the-century bicycle racer who fought racial prejudice while participating in the world's most popular speed sport of the period.
The two-part miniseries, airing in a single four-hour block, stars Phil Morris as the cyclist, with Renee Jones, Cameron Daddo and Richard Rosburgh, and departs interestingly from the usual sports hero film bio.
The setting is not America, but Australia, for the action documents a pair of celebrated summer trips made by Mr. Taylor, in 1902 and 1903, to race in a country "that runs on beer and sport," as one character puts it.
But Australia at that time had also recently adopted a piece of legislation known as the White Australia Policy, barring non-whites from even entering the country.
"This is a white man's country," protests the head of the League of Wheelmen, the Australian racing organization, when promoter "Huge Deal" MacIntosh (Mr. Rosburgh) announces he has landed the famous American to compete for a summer of stadium track racing.
Yet an interesting sidelight to the obvious race-busting scenario that follows is provided by a champion Australian racer, Don Walker (Mr. Daddo), who is fighting his own battle for equality.
Through racing, he sees a chance to transcend the classism of his culture, much as the American racer found sport an opportunity to rise out of poverty and the background of family slavery.
Ultimately, of course, the two racing rivals have to confront the notion that blacks and whites have to work together to fight corruption, which gives "Tracks of Glory" its expected moral tone.
But the film often plays more subtly, and also provides an insight into a sport now vastly eclipsed in America by baseball, football and basketball. (Channel 54 notes its scheduling is in anticipation of cycling events in the coming Olympic Summer Games.)
For example, in the early going Mr. Taylor woos his beloved Daisy (Ms. Jones), who is the offspring of a racially mixed marriage. Yet her father (Robert Vaughn) surprisingly objects to the proposed engagement, for he hopes she will marry a white and thus produce offspring who could "pass."
At a swank party in Australia, the fiancee of the top Australian racer (Justine Clarke) complains she feels like an outsider because she's just a poor school teacher. Replies Daisy, now married to the wealthy Mr. Taylor, "That's funny, I fit right in," laughing at the dual prejudices.
Viewers are also likely to recall the notable "Chariots of Fire," in which Mr. Taylor is portrayed as a deeply religious man who refuses to race on Sundays.
The movie drags at times, but the racing action is nicely filmed. It vividly projects the excitement of competing aboard relatively crude machines that at the time were the fastest things on wheels other than steam locomotives. Indeed, a race between Major Taylor and a puffing loco constitutes the opening sequence of the movie.