If the ninth Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela weren't attracting that much attention before this week they sure are now. As has been the case all too often in recent months, the big news involved drugs, not athletic performance.
The first sign of trouble came on Monday, when four weightlifters from Cuba and Canada were stripped of medals after testing indicated they had used anabolic steroids, a banned muscle-building drug. The real blockbuster occurred the following day, when 13 American track and field athletes, including seven men in the ''weight'' events, withdrew from the quadrennial competition. The United States Olympic Committee termed the exits a ''personal choice,'' and said they were not to be intrepreted as violations of rules governing the use of drugs.
The statement didn't keep people from drawing their own conclusions, though. And given the circumstantial evidence, there was good reason to be suspicious about the sudden withdrawals. For in a further development, American weightlifter Jeff Michels was stripped of three gold medals when he failed a drug test.
In the past, the international athletic community often cast a wary eye on East European athletes, feeling their state-run programs were more apt to encourage drug usage. But there are no geographic boundaries when it comes to athletes looking for an edge - real or imagined. Some American medical researchers have concluded that steroids don't enhance athletic performance, but not everybody is convinced.
The message is clear, however: state-of-the-art drug testing is on line, and ready to weed out those who once might have escaped detection. Laboratories reportedly can trace steroids taken two months earlier.
The warning flags couldn't have gone up at a better time. With the 1984 Olympics around the corner, athletes need to know that drug usage holds the potential for shattering their dreams.
But ultimately, their self-respect is really at stake, because there's no honor in false achievement, or in attempts to achieve it through artificial means. Basketball trial balloon
The Continental Basketball Association, which once had a team in Alaska and will add a Puerto Rican franchise next season, is surely the most daring sports league in business today. It can afford to be, since minor league basketball doesn't stand to lose too much by going out on a limb. ''Crowd'' is a relative term around the CBA, where average attendance at league games was 2,045 last year.
Still, that represents a 34 percent increase over the previous season, reason enough to retain one innovative rule and experiment with another.
The rule already on the books makes each game worth seven points in the standings, with one point awarded to the winner of each quarter and three points to the winner of the game. The idea is to generate sustained excitement.
Now, in a new wrinkle, the CBA will experiment with quick decision overtimes. The first team to score three points wins, which means one three-point shot could end things.
''We're hoping to create memorable moments,'' explains CBA commissioner James Drucker. ''In baseball or football overtimes, games end with fans watching an event - a dramatic home run in extra innings or a great touchdown in overtime. But in basketball games almost always end with the fans watching the clock. That's not exciting!'' Baseball peculiarity pays off
Clearly, baseball player Dale Berra will never be the hitter his famous father Yogi was. But while the younger Berra doesn't have his father's Hall of Fame batting stroke, he does have a knack for getting on base in the most unusual way - through catcher's interference. A shortstop with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he's been awarded first base five times this season on rare interference calls and 16 times during his five-year major league career.
Interference occurs when a fielder (the catcher) hinders or prevents a batter from hitting a pitch. It is called infrequently. Only nine other National League players have gotten on base because of interference this year, and then only once each.
Without trying, Berra expects he'll easily overtake Pete Rose, the all-time leader in this obscure category with 28 interference passes in 21 years.
His tendency to stand well back in the batter's box and take a long, looping swing have been factors in Berra's getting on base this way. So has ability to wait on the pitch. ''I swing late sometimes,'' he says. ''The catchers must think I'm going to take the pitch and move forward for the ball. Then their gloves get in the way.'' Touching other bases
* As if to prove his slugging prowess is no fluke, pitcher Walt Terrell of the New York Mets hit a three-run homer this week in an 8-3 victory over San Diego. Several weeks earlier, the rookie right-hander turned heads when he homered twice in one game against the Chicago Cubs. Manager Frank Howard is not surprised, saying Terrell has a good swing. He throws the ball pretty well, too. His 5-5 record is not particularly impressive, but then again, whose would be on the last-place Mets?
* A joint world record was set in the women's high jump last weekend when West Germany's Ulrike Meyfarth and the Soviet Union's Tamara Bykova both cleared 6 ft. 8 in. Such shared achievement may be unusual, but is certainly not unheard of. In 1932, at only the second Olympics to include the women's high jump, Jean Shiley and Babe Didrikson of the US both leaped 5-5 1/4 to set a world mark.
The very nature of some events makes it more likely for them to produce joint records. The high jump, where the bar is raised in pre-determined increments, is one such event, while the long jump is not. Incidentally, Meyfarth won the European Cup competition in London because she cleared 6-8 on her first try, Bykova on her second.