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March 19, 1997|MIKE PENNER

A consumer's guide to the best and worst of sports media and merchandise. Ground rules: If it can be read, played, heard, observed, worn, viewed, dialed or downloaded, it's in play here.

What: "Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story."

When: Tonight , USA Network.

Unintentional comedy can be a sad thing, especially when the story grapples so earnestly with such serious material as suicidal depression, child abuse and HIV.

But the road to bad television is often lined with good intentions. Regardless of its aspirations, "Breaking the Surface" is so clumsily written and acted that the laughs continually bubble to the top, usually just when the movie is aiming for a Great Truth.

After Greg Louganis wins two diving gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, his lover and business manager, Tom Bennett, is seen screaming in the kitchen, railing about Louganis' lack of endorsement offers: "That should be you on the cover of that Wheaties box--not (hysteria setting in) Mary Lou RET-TON!!"

When Louganis informs his first coach, Dr. Sammy Lee, that he is being dumped for Ron O'Brien, the Lee character, within 10 seconds, runs the gamut of human emotion: "I made you, Greg! . . . Maybe this is best."

Mario Lopez, enlisted to portray the adult Louganis, has two gears in this movie--Wounded Puppy and Crash Test Dummy. His Louganis may dive like a swan, but he's as thick as a stone.

Amazingly, Louganis is listed in the credits as a film "consultant," and appears as himself in the final scene.

One way or another, Louganis had to have signed off on this project, where everything is cast in black and white and good and evil, with nothing or no one in between. Louganis' much-suffering mom and O'Brien are ready for canonization; Bennett and Louganis' overbearing dad share the role of designated ogre.

Everyone featured in "Breaking the Surface" is a cardboard caricature, the star included. And you know what they say: Cardboard and water don't mix.

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