Every morning as Olympic competition begins, the grand old men of the Olympic movement - the nine executive-board members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - gather in an elegant meeting room at the Biltmore Hotel.
These are the keepers of the flame, socially elite sports enthusiasts from around the world, for whom Olympic ideals have virtually attained the status of religion. They are faced with an Olympic movement that has come under increasing strain recently from various fronts:
* The summer games under way here now are enduring the third major boycott since 1976, when much of black Africa stayed home. And the site of the 1988 games, Seoul, is politically touchy. Many communist countries don't recognize South Korea.
* Athletes and sports federations are stretching the definition of amateurism.
* Growing security concerns have promoted the notion of breaking up the Olympics into a series of championships at separate sites around the world.
* The sheer cost of the games has furthered the decades-old proposal for a single, permanent site.
The ongoing task of the IOC is untangling the Olympics from international politics. The IOC board decided here in Los Angeles to put off dealing with the boycott problem until a special session in December.
''But I'm sure of one thing: A penalty of some sort will be imposed (on future boycotting nations),'' says Julian K. Roosevelt, an executive-board member and one of two Americans on the 88-member IOC. Views among IOC members on what those penalties should be range from barring boycotting teams from the following Olympiad to barring them permanently from the Olympic movement, according to Mr. Roosevelt, a gold-medal-winning yachtsman in the 1952 games.
Other IOC leaders are more circumspect toward barring boycotters. ''It's a good idea,'' says Louis Guirandou-N'Diaye, an Ivory Coast diplomat who is first vice-president of the IOC. ''But it needs discussion.''
''No opinion prevails,'' says IOC third vice-president Alexandru Siperco, a Romanian official.
But Olympic leaders seem more likely to draw a hard line against boycotts than to compromise in order to avoid them. The IOC is unflinching in its support of the Seoul site in 1988, no matter how controversial the choice may be.
''One of the problems is trying to get at the people who cause these things, rather than the athletes,'' says Mr. Roosevelt. ''But it may have to be those athletes who pressure their leaders.''
''We want good relations with governments,'' says Mr. Guirandou-N'Diaye, who was the first black African to earn a black belt in judo. ''But we want governments also to respect our autonomy and our independence.''
One of the most hallowed ideals of the modern Olympics, amateurism, has grown increasingly ambiguous.
The international sports federations that govern ice hockey and soccer threaten to break from the Olympic family unless the IOC permits them more liberal use of professional players.
''That upset me very much,'' says Roosevelt, a grandnephew of President Theodore Roosevelt. ''There's no way they're going to set a precedent.''
He favors the hard-line approach of strengthening the amateur rule. The problem, he admits, is getting the sports federations to agree. ''They still are going to have to toe the line.''
''The irresponsible press calls professional games sport,'' Roosevelt says. ''It's not sport at all. It's big business. It's an industry bigger than Hollywood.''
Others take a more liberal view. ''In the IOC, we don't use anymore the word amateurism,'' says Guirandou-N'Diaye. The preferred term is ''nonprofessional.''
The new term simply acknowledges that athletes are seldom amateurs: Those training full time need money to live, and many get it, either with an Army paycheck in Eastern Europe or a college scholarship in the United States. Yet the Olympic fathers don't want athletes to be in it for the money, either.
Athletes as advertisers seems to particularly rankle IOC members. ''We cannot accept a sportsman as a direct agent of a business,'' says Mr. Siperco, who considers it a moral matter. ''So a professional in one sport cannot be an amateur in another. It is a state of mind.''
The notion of planting the Olympic Games permanently on one site is getting fresh consideration, since Greece has submitted a formal proposal offering such a site. IOC board members seem to be giving the matter polite but not very enthusiastic consideration.
Guirandou-N'Diaye is president of the IOC commission investigating this idea. He has made eight trips to Greece and made a model of the site, but he says there is resistance to the idea on the IOC. ''They think it will kill the idea of the universality of the games.''
The idea of breaking up the Olympics up into separate championships gets even less enthusiasm.
''Impossible,'' says Siperco, ''because the Olympic Games is not just a championship.'' Rather, he says, repeating what every Olympic leader intones, it is a force for bringing the youth of the world together in one place.