The Olympic spirit. The Soviet boycott has violated it, while ours in 1980 preserved it. At least that is the conventional wisdom. But what exactly is the ''Olympic spirit''? The phrase conjures up images of the ancient Greek games, of perfectly proportioned athletes competing in an atmosphere of freedom and fair play. For many of us, it connotes the highest ideals of athletic competition - in contrast to the corrupt practices of today. But the Olympic Games of yesterday were no more ideal - or idyllic - than our own.
Most of the competitors were drawn from the wealthier classes - classes supported by slave labor. Women were excluded from the games, not only as participants, but also as spectators. At Olympia athletes competed for a crown of wild olive. But they expected - and received - substantial material reward for the glory their victory conferred on their city. In Athens, for example, victors were awarded a sizable cash sum and exemption from taxes. In no way did this compromise what we loftily refer to as an athlete's amateur status.
The Olympic torch - the most sacred symbol of the modern games - did not originate at Olympia. It was an innovation of the notorious ''Hitler'' Olympics in 1936. The pageantry we associate with the splendor of Greece is pure Third Reich.
Hitler's attempt to use the games to legitimize his regime is especially ironic. If the Nazis had succeeded, their ''New Order'' would have plunged the world into disorder and darkness. Thus Western civilization would have come full circle, for it was in 776 BC, with the establishment of the Olympic Games, that the Greeks began to emerge from their own dark age. For Greek historians, the date marked the beginning of history.
It was more than the Greek love of sport that gave this date such significance. Greece was not a unified nation. It comprised independent, often contentious city-states. The opening of the games at Olympia allowed the Greeks to celebrate their commonality of language and religion and for the first time raised the possibility of peace among them. Athletic competition, once part of training for war, became a substitute for it.
This does not mean the Greeks stopped fighting. Their extraordinary achievement - and lesson for us - was that they didn't stop playing. Not once during the Peloponnesian War - an internecine struggle that lasted 30 years and involved virtually all the Greek states, led by Athens and Sparta - were the games suspended.
The Athenians and Spartans were as ideologically opposed, and as bitterly antagonistic, as we and the Soviets. Their attending the games was obviously not enough to make them stop fighting. But it did allow them to affirm what they had in common, and that this, ultimately, was a desire for peace and unity.
Critics would say that the modern games have lost the possibility for any such symbolism. But to boycott the games - or to abandon them - is to break yet another thread that ties us together. The Iranian seizure of our embassy and the Libyan outrage in London would have been incomprehensible to the Greeks (for whom the host-guest relationship was also sacred). They would have seen these as steps toward that chaos that was as real to them as nuclear war is to us. For them civilization was a frail, recent construct dependent on the willingness of people to communicate and cooperate. This is the essence of the Olympic spirit, which we, as well as the Soviets, should remember.