Now that the superpowers seem to be turning the Olympics into their own little poltical ping pong ball, can the Games as we know them survive? That's the big question in the wake of the Soviet Union's announcement that it won't participate in Los Angeles this year. And the consensus seems to be that the Olympics are indeed in danger unless some way can be found to return to the ideals for which the Games were founded and to give the arena back to the athletes.
''The Games are in real jeopardy now,'' four-time discus gold medalist Al Oerter said in reaction to the announcement.
''Two in a row has to reduce their stature tremendously,'' he added in reference to the US-led boycott by 61 nations at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Political intrusions are nothing new in the Olympics, of course. As long ago as 1936 the Berlin Games were blatantly politicized by Adolph Hitler as a means of showing the world his ''new Germany.'' And we had a more tragic example in 1972 with the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.
Boycotts have been more frequent than most casual observers realize too.
In 1956, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon boycotted the Games to protest the Israeli-led takeover of the Suez Canal, while Holland, Spain, and Switzerland remained home as a gesture of protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary. In 1964, Indonesia and North Korea stayed away in a dispute with the International Olympic Committee. And in 1976 a number of black African nations joined by Iraq and Guyana walked out after failing to get New Zealand expelled because of its sporting ties with South Africa.
But these disruptions, while politically significant, had no great effect on the sporting aspect. Now that the major powers are getting into the act, however , one can't help wondering where it all will end.
Clearly the absence of the Soviets, who have won the most medals in each of the last three Olympics, will diminish the competition at L.A., just as that of the Americans did in Moscow. The athletes of both countries are the losers again , of course, as they were in 1980. And at least some of them must be wondering by now if all the training and sacrifices are worth it when one government action - on any pretext - can so quickly ruin everything.
As for the USSR pullout, it raises many more questions at the moment than it answers. What, for instance, is the real reason? Might the Kremlin still change its mind? Will other Eastern bloc nations - particularly athletically powerful East Germany - follow the USSR's lead?
Why did they do it? Most people think the main reason was to retaliate for the US boycott. Or, as Los Angeles Olympic Committee President Peter Ueberroth put it, ''It appears we are paying the price for 1980.'' Another apparent factor was the opportunity to embarrass the Reagan administration in a US election year.
Naturally the Soviets deny all this. Their stated reasons are that ''extremist groups'' have been whipping up ''anti-Soviet hysteria'' with the connivance of US authorities, and that the security of their athletes couldn't be guaranteed.
Ever since 1980, of course, the Soviets had hinted that they might not come to L.A., but few really believed them. The Russians have regularly used the Olympics as a propaganda tool, claiming that their athletic success somehow demonstrates the superiority of their system.
''I'm amazed because I always felt it was their intention to . . . win every possible gold medal, to embarrass us in our own backyard, and at the same time to complain about our air, our security, everything...'' said discus star Oerter , who is again trying to make the US team.
Indeed, many experts still refuse to believe that the Russians won't eventually show up. The deadline for entries is June 2, so they have until then to change their minds. And the wording of their announcement, which said the USSR could not participate ''under these conditions,'' does appear to leave the door open for a possible reversal of the decision if they can get some of the concessions they have been seeking from the US government.
If they do stay out, though, the question becomes what their friends and allies do. Western observers believe many - including East Germany with its powerful team that has battled the USA and the USSR for supremacy in recent years - would follow suit. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria are other communist nations thought likely to stay home if the Russians do, while Romania, Yugoslavia, and possibly some others are considered possible participants in any event.
One unconfirmed report said the USSR was planning an alternative set of games in Sofia, Bulgaria. Such rumors also surfaced when the United States announced its boycott in 1980, but nothing ever came of them. It seems similarly unlikely that the Soviets could put such an event together now on such short notice either - unless, as has also been reported in some quarters, the entire pullout action has actually been in the works for some time.