For the first time since 1936, the Olympic flame relay from ancient Olympia to the site of the summer games may not take place. The controversy over the flame for the Los Angeles games has been brewing since Jan. 28, when the Town Council of Olympia voted unanimously - with all parties participating - to ''condemn the plan to commercialize the Olympic flame'' and to ''mobilize in every way Greek and international public opinion in order to preserve unsullied this great symbol of peace and the brotherhood of nations.''
At issue is the decision of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) to require sponsors to contribute $3,000 for each kilometer run with the torch. The sponsor will choose a runner to carry the torch for the kilometer it sponsored. The flame will travel through all 50 states.
The purpose of the plan is to raise $30 million for Boys Clubs and Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA, and the Special Olympics. According to William Hussey, director of international relations of the LAOOC, the runners will not carry advertising on their jerseys.
Despite Mr. Hussey's explanations during a meeting with representatives of Olympia, the Greek Olympic Committee, and the Greek government, Olympia Mayor Spyros Foteinos insisted on Monday that he would not let the flame ''become the victim of this practice'' and vowed to take steps to ''protect this great symbol.''
The Greek government has taken a strong position against the plan. The Greek Olympic Committee has deplored the plan but said it would not join efforts to prevent the flame from leaving ancient Olympia.
Mr. Foteinos had only hinted that the people of Olympia would not allow the flame to leave their city unless the LAOOC revokes its plan. But Yiannis Seferlis, president of the International Olympic Center for Peace and Civilization, said the center would hold a meeting in March to decide what it would do.
If its demands are not met, he asserted, they might decide to blockade the ancient site to prevent the lighting of the flame and the start of the relay.
Olympic officials would then be faced with several unpleasant alternatives. They could try to go ahead with the ceremony and the relay in the face of a noisy and embarrassing demonstration.
They might attempt to forgo the ceremony and take the Olympic flame directly from the Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. They could light their own flame in the United States. Or they might even decide not to have a flame at all, which seems to be the least likely option. Any of these alternatives would be very embarrassing for the LAOOC.
Some here have speculated that Moscow might have an indirect hand in encouraging the representatives of Olympia to take a hard line. They point out that the mayor is supported by the hard-line, pro-Soviet Greek Communist Party and that several members of the board of the International Olympic Center have close ties to the party.
According to this view, the Soviets might have quietly supported the protest in order to embarrass the US in retaliation for its boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The controversy will be discussed during a meeting of the International Olympic Committee - which approved the relay plan last year - in Sarajevo, during the Winter Games.
A possible compromise might be to offer some of the $30 million to selected Greek charities. However, cancellation of the plan, which has been in operation since last July, is considered highly unlikely as a great deal of money has already been collected.