After a week in southern California, the witty Soviet Olympic chief Marat Gramov was asked recently about his concern over security during the games. ''Speaking of security in general,'' he quipped dryly through a translator, ''you see all of our delegation here alive.''
Los Angeles is not quite the perilous urban jungle it is reported to be in the Soviet press. But protecting Olympic athletes, delegations, and visitors next summer will be a major effort - much of it confidential - by more than 50 law enforcement agencies across six southern California counties.
The handful of peaceful, anti-Soviet protesters outside the hotel as Mr. Gramov spoke with reporters stood as a reminder of how politically charged the Olympic Games have become.
To keep that political charge from igniting next summer, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are sorting out a hard-bargained accord over how to divide authority for security during the Olympics.
The biggest concern is terrorism, which so badly marred the 1972 summer games in Munich.
The Soviets in particular have quoted the organizers of a petition drive to ban the USSR from the games. The petition says that Soviet participation ''could result in acts of violence against their athletes and innocent spectators.''
Petition sponsor David W. Balsiger says he founded this claim on conversations with members of anti-Soviet groups supporting his petition drive, most of which are conservative religious and ethnic organizations.
The LAPD has set up a very active intelligence network, formed liaisons with antiterrorist agencies at all levels in the US, and sent officials abroad to confer with foreign agencies, including, reportedly, the West Germans, the British, and the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad.
Americans are relatively inexperienced in dealing with terrorism. While there were some 51 terrorist incidents in the US last year, according to Rand terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins, there were a couple of thousand each year in Italy during the heyday of the Red Brigades.
Most terrorism in this country, Mr. Jenkins notes, is rooted in American ethnic communities with feuds carried from other countries, such as Croatians vs. Yugoslavians, right-wing Cubans vs. Castroite Cuba, Puerto Rican separatists , pro-Khomeini Iranians vs. anti-Khomeini Iranians, or Armenians vs. Turks.
Part of the difficulty in gathering the intelligence that could ward off terrorist attacks is that few American police agencies have the language repertory to infiltrate these ethnic groups.
The Olympics demand special caution against terrorism because of both the international attention focused there and the symbolic presence of so many nations.
''It has a variety of flags,'' says Jenkins. ''Symbolic violence in front of an international audience is what terrorism is all about.''
On the optimistic side, the debacle played out in the Olympic village in Munich was followed by the Montreal Olympics in 1976 without terrorist incident. The Moscow Games were also terrorist-free, although Moscow, says Jenkins, ''doesn't count, because of the degree of social control there.''
On the other hand, international terrorism has increased fourfold since the Munich Games, indicating the alertness this year's Olympics demand.
Most of the world's terrorism is what Jenkins calls ''low-level'' terrorism, typically the bombing of a symbolic target, often inspired by the headlines of the moment. The more serious incidents including kidnapping, assassination, or the seizing of buildings take several months of planning, sometimes financing, and tend to grow out of longer-running feuds.
Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee president Peter V. Ueberroth notes that public opinion is important in keeping politics out of the games. At the New York Marathon this fall, he points out, 16,000 people ran through all sections of the city, and there was ''not even a tomato thrown.'' The reason is not security, he says, but that New Yorkers believe it is ''their event.''
Marat Gramov, who is chairman of the Soviet National Olympic Committee, observes that the people of the ''city of angels'' may, as Mayor Tom Bradley assured the Soviets, welcome the team next summer. ''But I think you can agree that not only angels live in Los Angeles.''