If they gave a gold medal for getting to the Olympics, teen-age track star Zola Budd would be a good choice for 1984. This year's frustrated Soviet athletes must secretly admire what Ms. Budd has done. Coming from the remotest reaches of sporting wilderness, Budd is sprinting toward a medal at the Los Angeles summer games. She is viewed as one of the world's fastest woman distance runners.
Budd was born in South Africa, the equivalent of being locked out of the stadium of international competition. But this runner, who prefers to race barefoot, made a quick dash to Britain about four months ago and picked up British citizenship by virtue of the fact that her grandfather was an Englishman.
This week Budd was selected by Britain to run the 3,000-meter race at the Olympics.
Budd's dash is a personal triumph. But South Africans - particularly whites - are responding in a mixed way that shows how emotionally painful sports isolation is for this country. There is pride over Budd's athletic prowess, but bitterness that the young woman, who is white, had to leave the country to put it on display.
''She should be running in South African colors,'' complained the Johannesburg Star newspaper recently, rather than being forced because she is South African to run under a ''flag of convenience.''
South African athletes are veterans when it comes to coping with the intertwining of sports and politics. South Africa has been shut out of the Olympics since 1960 because of the government's apartheid policies.
South Africa is banned from official representation on just about all other major international competitions.
Athletes, coaches, and sports officials here all agree that the world's sports boycott of South Africa has taken its toll.
''If we could go to the '88 Olympics,'' says one coach wistfully, ''you'd see a dramatic improvement in the standards here.''
Sonja Laxton, one of South Africa's best woman marathoners, says athletes in this country have had to find other motivations than ''going for gold.''
''I like to try and better the South African mark and then look at the world rankings to see where I could be,'' says Laxton. But she adds, ''If we could compete overseas I think we'd all train a little harder.''
Budd, it seems, is one South African athlete who has never had a problem pushing herself in training. Her coach's problem reportedly is to keep her from running more than twice a day in her preparations for the Olympics. While she was still competing in South Africa, she showed an ability to spur herself on to personal records despite no real pressure from local rivals.
No one here looks upon Budd's personal triumph as a victory over the boycott. Rather, it is seen primarily as a reminder of the boycott's effectiveness.
''She is the exception that proves the rule,'' says Reginald Feldman, chairman of the pro-boycott Transvaal Council on Sport. ''Zola Budd is an isolated incident and we don't see the boycott weakening.''
Staunch boycott opponent Rudolf Opperman, president of the South African Olympic Committee, agrees that Budd is one of a ''very small group'' of local athletes managing to get around the boycott.
Many analysts here regard the sports boycott as the most effective tool the outside world has employed against South Africa. An embargo on the sale of arms and oil to this country has seemingly just forced Pretoria to go it alone or deal under the table. But in the field of sport, South Africa pines for international competition.
The debate here seems to boil down to whether the sports boycott has achieved all it can.
A handful of laws that effectively used to require discrimination in sport has been amended. Blacks and whites are now permitted to compete in mixed events , before mixed audiences. Sports clubs now are allowed to have mixed memberships , and a number have opened their doors to all races.
But integration is not required. In the Transvaal Province, for instance, white schools are given the choice of what league they want to compete in, one involving only whites and one involving other races. Local authorities in South Africa still have the right, which many exercise, to reserve sporting facilities for whites only.
The opportunity to excel in sport remains vastly different for blacks and whites in South Africa. With poorer jobs, poorer schools, and poorer communities - all byproducts of apartheid laws - blacks enjoy far fewer sporting amenities than whites.
Mr. Feldman concedes there have been a ''few minor amendments to the laws'' governing sport in South Africa. But he says ''normal'' sport here will never be possible until apartheid is scrapped. ''The boycott is part of a struggle to right an unjust system of government.''
Mr. Opperman contends that by and large sport is ''normalized'' in South Africa, although he concedes that ''there is not parity in facilities and there is a disadvantage to being black.'' He argues that the areas over which sportsmen have control have been changed and that these changes should be rewarded with South Africa's readmission to international competition.
Whatever its pros and cons, the sports boycott has sent many South African athletes scrambling to beat it.
''The first thing I try to do is get my athletes a scholarship overseas,'' says track and field coach Stewart Banner. Attending a university abroad immediately allows a South African to begin competing in world-class events, as a member of a school team. This may also open doors to a change of citizenship.
Sydney Maree, a former South African who is black, followed that route, attending Villanova University and marrying an American woman. Now a US citizen, Mr. Maree has qualified to compete for the US Olympic team in Los Angeles.
Still, Maree voices frustration with the boycott even after being selected for the US Olympic team. ''Punish the (South African) government for what it does that may be wrong. But there is no reason why our athletes should be punished at the same time,'' he is reported to have said.
There are a handful of others who will probably compete at this year's games as a result of obtaining foreign citizenship. Carmelia Burki is expected to run for Switzerland, having qualified for Swiss citizenship by marrying a Swiss. South Africa's record-holder in the javelin throw is trying to qualify for the West German team. And at least one South African has been granted Israeli citizenship, and hopes to compete in Los Angeles.
''But these are the exceptions,'' says Banner. He points out that black South Africans are the least likely to find a way around the boycott, since few have family links that would qualify them for foreign citizenship.
However, fewer blacks than whites may be interested in beating the boycott. Much as they like to compete with the world's best, says Feldman, blacks realize anything they do might be construed as breaking the boycott and might brand them as ''sellouts'' in the black community.