Can athletes triumph against a computer?
Until very recently, when anybody mentioned the word ''science'' in the same breath with the word ''sport,'' you just knew you were in for another semi-learned discussion about whether a baseball pitcher's curve was a truly trackable dipsey-doodle or only an optical illusion.
Even with the obligatory dotted-line diagrams, The Great Curve Ball Debate never seemed all that fascinating. Yawning bystanders assumed that sports writers were trying to prove that they too could be a part of Einstein's universe.
It was with a certain relief that everybody put away their pocket calculators and returned to the really important debates, like: Who was the greatest center fielder, Tris Speaker or Joe DiMaggio?
But that was yesterday. Though it hasn't happened yet, praise be, one of the messages of the '84 Olympics is that sport threatens to become nothing but science.
Blame it on the Russians, like everything else. Olympic gold medals began falling on Moscow as thick as snowflakes in January when the Soviets started treating their athletes as if they were machines, and now the United States and the rest of the world are getting onto this newest game among the games.
Coaches in any sport no longer have to trust their instincts about a promising prospect. One simply hooks up the candidate to metabolic computers, isokinetic dynamometers, and so on - and then hands him over to the mercies of the white smocks in the biochemistry lab. Subject's height, weight, pulse rate - plus the size, shape, and quality of every muscle this side of the ear lobe - will be fed into a master computer, and out will come the sport he must play, and even the position.
Never mind that little Bucky wants to be a third baseman, like his bubble-gum card hero George Brett. Electronic ''intelligence'' rules that Bucky has the makings of a backstroke swimmer, and that is that.
Call us a romantic, but we're not thrilled at the prospect of sports turning into computer games, where your 1984 Casey Stengel punches into his dugout terminal to see if he should call a squeeze bunt - given the wrist size of the batter laying down the bunt and the calf development of the runner on third, dashing for home.
Last month the 1912 Olympic feats of Jim Thorpe were commemorated by some 15, 000 members of 47 Indian tribes attending ceremonial games in El Monte, Calif. Jim Thorpe was a natural. A consummate athlete in every sport he put his hand or foot to, Thorpe would have been bewildered by the new methodologies, capped by sports psychologists hypnotizing or simply hyping athletes into what one analyst has dubbed the ''State of Optimal Functioning.'' All spontaneity and exuberant impulses and grace, Thorpe made sports an art rather than a science.
The same could be said of Babe Ruth - a man to whom the word ''discipline'' was anathema. What would the Babe, with his round tummy, have done in this age where the slogan reads, ''May the man with the best zinc and fiber diet win''?
Nobody would defend the eccentricities of the many, many flamboyant champions in the history of all sports. But at least they were individuals, not automatons - and this is what worries us about sport-science.
We don't want to get hysterical about presuming that sports are going to become a matter of Our Robots vs. Their Robots. But we like what the columnist Murray Kempton wrote years ago about Willie Mays. Noting that Mays once struck out five times in a row, Kempton observed: ''He can be fooled; and that, I think , is the secret of his charm.''
The Kempton conclusion: If you're going to be a fan and follow an athlete through his career, ''let him be a human ballplayer.''
Could anybody today better state the case for keeping the partnership between sport and science limited?