Stars support special athletes

August 15, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Victory and Valor: A Special Olympics All Star Celebration" is a show to watch with your heart.

The two-hour celebration of the eighth Special Olympics International games, which airs at 8 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), is not great television. But it's television trying to do great things: Inspire some people to achieve every inch of their potential, while educating others away from their prejudice toward the disabled.

It is a TV show with the potential to leave viewers more enlightened than it found them, allowing them to feel an ache of empathy and a sense of communion with these athletes.

The Special Olympics are the international athletic games founded 23 years ago by Eunice Kennedy Shriver for disabled youngsters and adults. Held this summer in Minneapolis, the event had over 6,000 athletes from 106 countries competing in events ranging from track and field to swimming and diving.

ABC's two-hour special focuses on the opening ceremonies, which featured performances by entertainment stars, and on the stories of several athletes, told through the eyes of pop celebrities. This show biz gloss is both the curse and blessing of the show.

On the one hand, television is the great validator in American life, so it's important that the show include performances by Prince, Patti Austin and Randy Travis. It's important to pair a teen-age gymnast with singer Debbie Gibson, a Navajo runner with Jon Bon Jovi and a boy from Nepal with Bob Seger, and to have the celebrities talk about how they got to know and admire the athletes.

When Jon Bon Jovi says Special Olympians are "cool," lots of viewers are going to agree. When Debbie Gibson gets gymnast Casey Mangan talking and singing about relationships, viewers can't help but connect with and care for the teen-ager.

But with the celebrity gloss comes a sense of overproduction and an emphasis on glamour, instead of a sustained focus on the determined competition that is the real poetry of these games.

Some of the best moments are the ones the cameras seem to have captured by accident: Special Olympians dancing while Prince sings, young athletes being pumped up by a cheering crowd.

The show needs more of that -- and less of the Arnold Schwarzenneggers and Don Johnsons.

Tonight also marks a a big event on HBO, when the cable channel televises Paul Simon's "Born at the Right Time" concert live from Central Park, beginning at 7. This marks the 10th anniversary of a Central Park reunion concert between Simon and former partner Art Garfunkel that became a baby-boomer landmark. However, Garfunkel is not expected to perform tonight.

If the three-hour concert is postponed by rain, it will be shown Sunday.

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