Indianapolis — What better place to host the National Sports Festival than Indianapolis, the ''crossroads of America.'' For symbolically a juncture of another kind has been reached by many of the 2,600 athletes assembled here for the nine-day competition that began last weekend and runs through Saturday.
Their performance in this, the United States Olympic Committee's fourth such festival, may help determine whether there's an Olympics in their future.
The event, at its acorn stage, was the idea of former USOC President Robert Kane, who envisioned a national multi-sport event in non-Olympic years similar to those held in several other countries. At this point the US version is still barely out of swaddling clothes, but growing like a weed - at least in terms of local attention lavished on it.
Here in Indianapolis, for example, the host Indiana Sports Corporation has gone all out to present an Olympic-type spectacle.
The opening festivities were dressed in almost as much color and pageantry as the Games themselves. There was a parade of athletes through downtown, the lighting of a 27-foot torch that will become a permanent city landmark, an opening ceremony at Market Square Arena with comedian Bob Hope, and a special street fair.
The attention has since shifted to the competition in 33 sports, including Pan-American games and Olympic demonstration sports, and to an impressive array of athletic facilities scattered throughout the city. The cement is hardly dry at some of these sites, which collectively may be the finest in the nation and are a major source of burgeoning civic pride.
''The festival has never utilized as many big league facilities,'' states Mike Moran, the USOC's media coordinator, citing a new cycling velodrome, swimming and diving natatorium, and gleaming outdoor track and field stadium that are among the city's recent editions.
The first two festivals, in 1978 and 1979, were incubated at the USOC's 34 -acre national training center in Colorado Springs. Beginning last year, however , the show hit the road, with cities invited to bid for the privilege of hosting these festivals.
Last year Syracuse did a creditable job for a community of its size. But in Indianapolis, the USOC found what may be nearly an ideal environment for the festival. It is sufficiently large (more than four times the size of Syracuse in population) to provide a solid base of support, but not so big that the festival becomes just another event.
This is particularly important in the case of the festival, where the unknown prospects outnumber established veterans and there are many so-called minor sports such as yachting and archery.
Among this year's headliners are sprinter Evelyn Ashford, diver Greg Louganis , and long jumper/sprinter Carl Lewis, whose parents are co-coaches of the East's women's track team.
Every athlete represents one of four regions - north, south, east or west. These divisions seem to add little to spectator interest and sometimes are loosely adhered to.
In ice hockey, for instance, players were drafted out of a central talent pool before the festival began in an attempt to achieve greater competitive balance. Other situations have dictated juggling regional rosters too.
During the competition's first weekend, 32 of 41 festival track records fell, but world records seldom are toppled at these summerfests. ''There's really not enough pressure at the festival for world records to be broken,'' says Moran.
Veteran athletes generally don't view participation as a make or break proposition. The younger, up-and-coming types consider it important to leave a calling card, though. Only about one-third the number of athletes here will ever secure a berth in either the summer or winter Olympics. And even to return to the festival requires an invitation from one of many national sports governing bodies.
Of course, the athletes are competing for medals, too, ones that have been emblazoned on the back with the famous LOVE motif of local artist Robert Indiana.
The bulk of a brisk advance ticket business saw people snatching up admissions to the glamour sports of track and field, figure skating, and basketball. Organizers were particularly ecstatic over the large day-of-event sales during the first weekend. And with prices generally running in the $3-$5 range, there is an excellent chance of reaching the goal of $750,000 in ticket income. This amount, plus that from the sale of souvenirs and local corporate sponsorship, should just about cover the costs of putting on the festival.
Next year's festival was originally scheduled for Los Angeles, where athletes could have tried out the 1984 Olympic venues and prepared for the 1983 Pan-Am Games in Caracas. But figuring this might have been biting off a little too much a year before the Olympics, the LA contingent bowed out, allowing Colorado Springs to step in as the '83 host.
In Moran's opinion, however, ''the festival's future falls into mid-range population centers. I think the USOC will be quite amenable to having the festival return to Indianapolis. Other cities that might do well with it but who haven't contacted us are Omaha, Kansas City, and Milwaukee, to name a few. San Diego and Philadelphia are possible sites as well.''
One thing is for sure, though. Whoever gets the 1985 festival will find Indianapolis one very tough act to follow, which is just the way the USOC wants it.