TO wring hands over an East-bloc boycott of the Los Angeles games may be to miss the point. The Olympics are a sports event. They are, in a sense, a bonus for harmony among nations, or at least an earnest of the desire to get along. Sports are not a substitute for more fundamental issues of peace, economics, political organization, and war.
The Soviets are signaling, in the boycott they have orchestrated, a more fundamental difference with the United States. Chiefly it is about power and military threat. The chief focus for the Soviets is the European missile talks. They want tangible evidence that Ronald Reagan really wants to reach an agreement on the medium-range missiles now being deployed.
The Soviets apparently now consider the US Pershing II missiles to be a strategic arsenal. They considered them important enough to prompt their first two arms-talks walkouts, from the Intermediate Nuclear Force and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks parleys in Geneva. Why Moscow is so exercised by the Pershing IIs puzzles some experts; perhaps the Soviets do not have a defense against them. They had invested a great deal of emotion, of prestige in Europe in the INF negotiations, only to see them collapse. And not just the collapse, but the way they collapsed, with two differing versions of the informal ''walk in the park'' compromise, made the Soviets wary of the Reagan administration's basic intent.
Toward the end of last year, as deployment of the Pershing and cruise missiles neared, the administration seemed to settle down into wanting an agreement - but by then the downwarp in US/Soviet relations was well under way.
The clear impression now is that the Soviets intend to make life difficult for the Reagan administration at every opportunity. They're rebuffing private and official contacts. They don't want to hear about gas deals, cultural exchanges. It's nyet to everything.
The Soviets must figure Reagan has a better than even chance of reelection. This only adds to the seriousness of their current anti-Reagan campaign. To charge that the Soviets calculate they can unseat Reagan is again to miss the point.
Some Soviet analysts of American politics show an interest in Gary Hart's appeal to the independent vote. They don't prefer Hart. They don't necessarily think he could win the nomination. They don't think they can influence American politics. Pushing too hard could produce a backlash that would help Reagan. But they do wonder what potential there might be for an alternative negotiating tack in the US.
The Soviets did not succeed in getting Western Europe to cancel the Pershings. But West Germany's Social Democrats did detach themselves from Helmut Schmidt's lead on the two-track plan (missile deployment to pressure the Soviets into negotiations) - and this could have major repercussions in the future.
Now the Soviets are using their Olympics decision to display an escalation of internal Soviet distaste for the Reagan administration.
A reelected Reagan, or an elected Mondale or Hart, faces in 1985 a confused negotiating situation with a hostile Moscow. How to reverse the downturn in US-Soviet relations is a far more serious matter than the absence of East-bloc athletes from this summer's games.