A certain tension has developed lately over whether the Soviet Union will compete in the Olympic Games here next summer. Much of it can be traced directly to the Soviets' shooting down of a South Korean airliner Sept. 1, and it has made for a tug of war of sorts with three teams.
The teams are (1) Americans outraged over the incident who want the Soviets banned from the Games, (2) Olympic organizers who want to keep politics out and the Soviets in, and (3), in the middle, the Soviets themselves, who are being cagey about which way they are pulling.
The controversy turns on the whole question of what the Olympics stand for.
Are they above the hurly-burly of international politics - a view favored by both Olympic idealists and practical Olympics organizers? Or are they valuable tools for making national statements - as they have been used since the beginning of the modern Games?
Not two weeks after the Soviets shot down the Korean Air Lines passenger jet, the California Legislature passed a unanimous resolution asking the United States government to ban Soviet athletes from the 1984 Summer Games.
Then later in September, four southern Californians, including two prominent Korean businessmen, began a ''Ban the Soviet Union'' petition drive, which they hope will discourage the Soviets from coming.
The Soviets, for their part, have canceled out of four pre-Olympic competitions since the airliner incident, and they failed to appear at a formal meeting last week to sign a contract buying Olympic television rights for the Eastern bloc.
They have until May to accept their invitation to the Games, and they have said they won't do so until the safety of their athletes can be better ensured.
Peter Ueberroth, president of the organizing committee in Los Angeles, countered the Legislature's move with a statement from Washington last week that said no eligible nation would be barred from the Games. He claimed the support of both the White House and Democratic leaders in the House.
This week, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley echoed Mr. Ueberroth in vowing to keep the Games from falling prey to international politics.
Some think the Games are thoroughly political by nature, however, and highly prized by the Soviets as a chance to show the world and the Soviet people their athletic dominance.
State Sen. John Doolittle (R), who wrote the Legislature's resolution, says the Soviets use the Games like their military parades, to show off their might.
''I don't think we ought to offer them that forum this year,'' he adds. ''The basis of the Olympics is that there's goodwill among men through sports.'' Since the Korean airliner downing, he says, there is no such goodwill.
David Balsiger, one of the petition organizers, agrees. Keeping the Soviets out of the Olympics, he says, is a retaliation that hurts the least number of individuals, doesn't punish US producers, as in a grain embargo, or harm the US economy.
''What we hope will happen is that they will simply withdraw,'' Mr. Balsiger says. He is now organizing a coalition of groups ranging from religious to ethnic to channel the petition drive through.
Students of politics and the modern Olympics speculate that the Soviets will be here in the end. The Games are too effective as propaganda for them to pass up - ''especially if they can do well on the home ground of their chief adversary,'' notes Richard Espry, author of the 1979 book ''Politics of the Olympic Games.''
If they don't come, however, Mr. Espry predicts a more badly damaged Games than the American-led Moscow Olympics boycott caused in 1980. The Soviets and their bloc are simply too dominant in too many events, he explains.
Olympic historian Andrew Strenk, now on the staff of the Los Angeles organizing committee, disagrees somewhat. Money spent, tickets sold, and the level of festivity would all survive a Soviet boycott, he says, even if there were fewer records broken.
Dr. Strenk notes that the Soviets didn't compete in the Olympics from the Russian Revolution in 1917 until the Helsinki Games in 1952, and the Olympics prospered nonetheless.
Espry and Strenk agree that the idealistic view of the Olympics has been a myth from the beginning. The Games have always been built around nationalism, and nearly every eligible nation has boycotted the Games at least once.
It was the Nazi Olympics in 1936 that catapulted the Games into the foreground of world politics. These Games, Espry notes, made the Olympics a primary foreign policy tool. Hitler spent five times what was spent in 1932 in Los Angeles, and scored a coup for the superiority of ''Fascist man,'' Strenk says.
As for the Soviets, he says, ''they will snipe as long as possible about whether the US is fit to hold the Games. . . . If one Soviet athlete has a bed that's too short, you can bet everyone in the Soviet Union is going to hear about it.''