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Olympics politics

LIKE any host nation the United States ought to take the utmost precautions at this year's Olympic Games to protect Soviet and all other athletes, an especially challenging task given the sprawling nature of this year's site. Fortunately such action has been under way for months, as the US government, like that of Los Angeles, has been training law-enforcement teams to deal with the potentialities of terrorism or other untoward incidents.

Moscow accuses Washington of insisting that all Soviet athletes obtain visas to enter the US, a charge denied. Also rejected is the Soviet accusation that the Reagan administration is working with a group called Ban the Soviets Coalition to get Soviet athletes to defect.

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Why the Soviets have unleashed such a volley of complaints at this time may not be difficult to fathom. We still doubt that it is the precursor of a Soviet decision to pull out of the Olympic Games. At the least it could be an effort to embarrass the US and thereby score political points with other nations. It could be an attempt to trouble President Reagan's reelection effort, or an effort to angle for better quarters for Soviet and East-bloc athletes. And it could signal an attempt to gain a psychological edge at the games.

There is a recent precedent for interfering with the Olympic Games. President Carter withdrew US participation from the 1980 Olympics, held in Moscow, in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Use of the Olympics for political purposes in one way or another is decades old. To cite a most disturbing example, in 1936 Adolf Hitler was determined to use the Berlin Olympics to prove to the world his ''master race'' theory - which Jesse Owens, a black American, personally demolished by winning four gold medals.

More recently, the Soviet Union and its East-bloc allies have made Olympic medals a goal of national policy. Athletic wins are trumpeted as achievements of the state.

Even relatively tiny Cuba gets into the act, identifying children as young as two years old as potentially superior athletes, removing them from their homes, and sending them to special athletic training schools, in some cases in the Soviet Union.

It is not only the Soviet Union that is injecting politics into this year's Olympics. The Palestine Liberation Organization has asked to send a team, though it is not a nation: Next month the International Olympic Committee will take up that request. And earlier this week North and South Korea held an inconclusive and spark-filled ''talk'' about the possibility of sending a joint team to Los Angeles.

It is time to focus on athletes, not nations.

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