Pros in Winter Games would make little difference

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Happily, the XIV Winter Olympics are already receding into the ''ancient history'' category, so we can all forget about the luge, bobsledding, speed skating, and the biathlon for another four years. Before we do, though, let's put a few thoughts in the memory bank for use at Calgary in 1988.

First, there's the eligibility question. There was so much controversy in Sarajevo about amateurism vs. professionalism, double standards, hyprocisy, etc. , that you'd have thought this was a new issue rather than one that's been kicking around as long as the Olympics themselves.

Not that it hasn't become more of a problem in recent years. But even the ''modern'' version of the issue, complete with its Cold War overtones, is getting to be pretty old stuff itself at this point.

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Of course the Russian and other Eastern European athletes are professionals by any reasonable definition of that term. Obviously it doesn't make sense that they can play while pros from other countries are barred. So what else is new?

Hockey was the sport around which all the controversy swirled at Sarajevo - but the basic problem was the same one that has existed ever since the Soviets began competing in 1956. The only new twist was that the Canadians forced the issue by bringing along players with National Hockey League affiliations. They won a partial victory when the International Olympic Committee banned some of the players in question but let others compete. They may eventually win the whole war, too, for even as the USSR was capturing another ''foregone conclusion'' gold medal, sentiment clearly was growing to solve the eligibility problem.

Alpine skiing is another sport where the issue is hardly new. Just about all top Alpine stars are de facto professionals. But as George Orwell might have put it, some are more professional than others - at least according to the IOC. Those who collect their money within certain guidelines are welcome, while those who don't (meaning Ingemar Stenmark and Hanni Wenzel this year), are not. Again it seems likely that something will be done to create a more equitable situation by 1988.

But now comes the kicker as far as American fans are concerned: it isn't going to make any difference. US officials always make such a fuss on this subject that you might think a few changes in the rules were going to result in a steady chorus of The Star Spangled Banner in Calgary. So before anyone gets too optimistic, let's clear up that little misconception.

Let's hypothesize that the IOC comes to its senses and opens the Games to all athletes. Now, if you want to get an idea of what difference this will make, imagine that this had been the case in Sarajevo.

How many more medals a would the USA have won? The best way to answer that question is to ask another one: how many pro lugers, bobsledders, speed skaters, ski jumpers, biathletes, etc., are floating around out there? The answer to both questions, of course, is zero.

It's the same story in cross-country skiing. This sport has become popular on the recreational level, but competitively, with an occasional exception like Bill Koch, the United States is still a long way from catching up to the Scandinavians and the Russians. Furthermore, since all of the top American racers compete under the current system anyway, it's hard to see how changing the eligibility rules would make any new stars materialize.

Figure skating also wouldn't have been affected. Things might be different if there were a competitive pro circuit, but you don't think anyone who's been skating around with Mickey Mouse or the Smurfs for the last six months would be a potential medal candidate, do you now?

Hockey? Let's be serious. The Soviets play on even terms with top pro teams, so what difference is it going to make if other countries can use a few marginal NHL players? The only chance of any equitable competition on a regular basis would be if the the NHL halted its season for a couple of weeks - and then it would be Canada, not the USA, that might have a shot.

The only results that might have been different were in Alpine skiing. But, as noted, the skiers affected were Stenmark and Wenzel, who had won two gold medals each in 1980. Thus the countries that figured to benefit were Sweden and Liechtenstein. And the one that stood to be hurt the most if ''pros'' had been permitted to compete was neither the USSR nor East Germany, but the USA, which conceivably could have lost two gold medals.

No, the problem the United States faces every four years is not amateurism vs. professionalism; it is apathy. When it comes to international competition in general - and to the sports which make up the Winter Olympics in particular - you just don't find the same amount of interest in America as you do elsewhere.

This, of course, has generally been the case. The United States usually wins somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen medals, finishing around fourth or fifth overall. And despite all the doomsday talk in Sarajevo (at least until the explosion of medals near the end), this year's results were exactly what most knowledgeable observers had predicted - good showings in figure skating and Alpine skiing, and nothing anywhere else.

In other words, par for the course.And just about what we can expect in Calgary too - despite what anyone tries to tell you in January and February of 1988.

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