OLYMPIC Games boycotts can be an embarrassing yardstick of great-power influence. Former President Carter did his best to persuade all allies, clients, and friends of the United States to boycott the 1980 summer Olympic Games in Moscow as a punishment for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Mr. Carter had some success. West Germany, Japan, Canada, and NBC television joined the boycott largely, though not entirely, for the sake of solidarity with the US.
Others joined the boycott for their own reasons. China and Albania did it, and would have done it, on their own. They needed no prodding from Washington.
The governments of such essential friends as Britain, France, and Italy gave Mr. Carter their sympathy, but their Olympic athletes went to Moscow - and did well. The British came back with six gold, six silver, and nine bronze medals - rather better than they probably would have if the Americans, West Germans, Japanese, and Chinese had been present.
Most embarrassing for Mr. Carter was Puerto Rico, which fielded a boxing team at Moscow in spite of ''persuasion'' from Washington.
Mr. Carter had an advantage in his boycott efforts. The world was shocked by the sudden Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was the most blatant and overt act of military aggression by a great power against a sovereign and independent neighbor since World War II. (The earlier Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia were different. Those countries were nominally sovereign, but not independent. Moscow was reclaiming what it considered to be its property.)
But Mr. Carter had a problem which the Soviets do not have this year. There was a six-month lag between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the date of the games. Mr. Carter did not launch the boycott plan at once. He first proposed a change in the site of the games. He wanted another and rival round of games in some other place.
By the time the 1980 games actually opened in Moscow on July 19, the original enthusiasm for the boycott had cooled. A total of 81 countries took part. There were 6,000 athletes present, as against 10,000 expected.
The Soviets had prepared for 300,000 visitors. Only 100,000 came. But there were more NATO countries present at the games than were absent.
This time the Soviets played it straight and hard. They announced their boycott. There was no nonsense about a possible alternate site. That was on last Tuesday, a week ago today. On Thursday Bulgaria, Moscow's most loyal friend and ally, joined in. So, too, did East Germany, which is the most heavily occupied of the Soviet satellites. (It is sat upon by 20 of the best Soviet Army divisions.)
On Friday Vietnam, which vies with Cuba as being the most heavily subsidized Soviet client, joined up. So did Mongolia, which is occupied by five Soviet divisions.
On Saturday the boycott gained Czechoslovakia, which lives under seven Soviet divisions, and Laos, which in fact is part of Vietnam and which survives largely on Soviet subsidy.
On Sunday Afghanistan came on line. It is occupied, actively, by more than 100,000 Soviet troops.
That exhausts the list of Soviet clients who have no choice. It will be interesting to see how Poland, Hungary, and Romania play the hand. At least, they did not enlist during the first week.
And Fidel Castro, what will he do? He claims to be nonaligned. He belongs to the nonaligned conference. Here is a chance for him to show a little nonalignment. Probably, in the end, he will join. After all, he lives on an annual Soviet subsidy of some $3 billion. He can't keep going without it - unless he did a similar deal with Washington, which has not been offered.
It raises again the question about where to hold the Olympic Games. In 1980 President Carter proposed moving them permanently to Greece. Apparently there is enough space near the original site of the games at Olympia to build the modern facilities needed for such games.
Holding them in small and relatively neutral countries would have advantages. It would spare the great powers the embarrassment of being unable to enlist all of their clients in a boycott.