"To Dance for Gold," a two-hour documentary airing on Channels 26 and 32 tonight at 9, does its best to turn a ballet competition into a media event. To the extent that it succeeds, the program shunts attention from the serious artistic aspects of the contest to its shoddier, promotional veneer--to the hype, the puffery and the synthetic glamor that inevitably surround such happenings, extended and magnified by typically crass video manipulations.

Public interest in such contests has grown in recent years, mainly due to an increased awareness of the connection between winning and superstardom. The contest covered in tonight's program--the 2nd International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss., last summer--is one of a round of such meets held alternately in Varna, Bulgaria (the oldest and still most prestigious), Moscow, Tokyo, and since 1979, in Jackson as well. The roster of such past victors as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova and Fernando Bujones has conferred an aura of ballet chic upon the whole circuit. The fact is, though, that it's the stars who have made the competitions famous, not the other way around. Baryshnikov was a gold medalist at Varna in 1966, but it took nearly a decade for him to become a world celebrity. And for every Baryshnikov who has walked off with a medal, there are dozens of other prizewinners whose names remain obscure.

This isn't to say there's no genuine value in these competitions; for young dancers, they offer challenge, exposure and experience in heavy doses, as well as potential beneficial fallout for winners. But in shooting for mass appeal, "To Dance for Gold" has approached a search for artistic promise as if it were a cross between a beauty pageant and a bowl game.

To be sure, applying the techniques of TV sportscasting in this context has its obvious merits, and the program bends over backward to utilize instant replays, slow motion, stop-action shots, split-screen comparisons, voice-over explanation and backstage interviews to maximum advantage. This is all to the good, but the effects are largely dissipated by platitudinous commentary of host-interviewers Dick Button ("what a beautiful group of young people!"), Jacques d'Amboise ("he has a nice way of moving--he enjoys dancing") and Marge Champion, as well as the quickie, superficial background material that's intercut with the competition footage. One such insert has the mayor of Jackson, Dale Danks, telling us that his is a city that "works together, plays together and prays together."

When one silver medalist--the phenomenal, then-13-year-old Katherine Healy (of "Six Weeks" fame) who since has taken a gold at this year's Varna competition--takes a fall during a turn, Button strives mightily to turn it into another Cuban missile crisis. More to the point is Healy's own backstage remark about the incident, accompanied by a nervous giggle--"Oh, I just slipped."

In the two-hour span, there is, however, a great deal that's worth watching and savoring--in particular, the brilliant and beautiful dancing of Healy, gold-medalists Gina Gail Hyatt and Janie Parker, and among the male contingent, Alexis Zubiria, Pablo Savoye and Li Cunxin. The problem comes in trying to ignore the packaging and focus instead on the product, which is the reverse of what the program sets out to do.