DON'T INSULT dancers by calling them athletes. They are so much more finely tuned, in so-much better physical shape that a comparison is meaningless unless it is used as a reproach to the average athlete.

Boxers train to bring themselves to a peak of fitness on the night of a fight, and can blow up like ballons immediately after if they so desire. Ballplayers have to undergo strenuous weeks of training to prepare themselves for the season and, from the endless list of muscle pulls, charley horses, sprains and assorted aches and pains, the training has remarkably little effect where the physical condition of the player is concerned. Luis Tiant and Thurman Munson (I mention them at random as general - not specific - examples) hardly qualify for the Greek ideal, yet their spare tires obviously do not diminish their skills.

A dancer is in training 365 days of the year for as long as the performing career lasts. If the dancer is a man, he must catch, lift and frequently hold a 110-pound weight (his ballerina) above his head while walking around a stage andhe must look calm, confident and even happy while he does it. The discipline is not seasonal, it is endless. Even on vacation, a dancer will not allow himself more than a few days of relaxation without seeking out somewhere to take the daily class that is a necessity to keep the skills from eroding to even the slightest degree.

It is a lifelong acceptance of the rigors and, yes, the pain of being a dancer. How many athletes can say the same?

This whole business of making the comparison, the "dancer-as-athlete" syndrome, began years ago when some people hit on this idea as a way of bringing respectability to a profession mistakenly believed to be not being quite the thing for men. Dancing was a man's sport, only it just so happened that the men in question frequently wore tights and velvet jackets. Today, Lee Mazzilli's baseball pants fit him like a second skin, and would anyone like to make an argument out of that?

The present generation of male dancers need no such apologists. So will everybody please shut up?

Baseball seems to be the sport most often chosen for comparison with ballet. It makes for a nice photographic spread designed to show that the second baseman, pivoting with feet crossed to make the throw to first, is actually performing an entrechat, while the first baseman, lunging wildly to take a bad throw, is in the ballet position known as en quatrieme devant. In actuality, the second baseman is simply pivoting to make the throw and the first baseman is lunging to catch the ball - and neither of them will ever do it exactly the same again though they will approximate the movements a thousand times.

In contrast, dancers strive to repeat each step to the utmost perfection time after time after time, and those steps will always be done in the same place at the same time as long as the ballet itself is performed in its original form.

For, like all games, baseball consists of an infinite number of improvisations, never exactly repeated, which take place within a known set of rules. Ballet is a performing art in which the dancers endeavor to re-create the same sequence of steps within the set of rules known as choreography.

All sport is competitive to a greater or lesser degree. Even hunters hope that the wretched creatures they slaughter will be bigger or more numerous than these of the other fellow. Dancers compete only with their own inner image of the perfection they are striving to achieve. No impresario yet has thought of bringing out two Odette-Odiles or two Siegfrieds in "Swan Lake" and having them receive points: so many for Odette-Odile's renverses en attitude or fouettes, so many for Siegfried's entrechata or double tours en l'air.

Association football (soccer) does offer some comparison with dance, perhaps, because of the intricacy of the delicate, filigree footwork; though here again, the game operates within set rules. The lack of violence and the sheer subtlety of the game have kept soccer until recent years from making much headway with American sports fans. It took a genius, though one in his declining years - of course, I mean Pele - to change enough minds so that soccer is now beginning to compete in popularity with other team sports. Just as soon as its promoters have found a way to bend the rules sufficiently to inject some bone crunching, we can expect it to offer serious competition to American football, which long ago became little more than hand-to-hand combat in armor, roughly the equivalent of medieval ball-and-chain jousting. When that day arrives - and television may bring it earlier than we may like to think - soccer will lose even its present modest kinship to dance.

There is one sport, however, to which dance might legitimately be found to have a relationship, and that is bullfighting, which is a ritual almost before it is a sport. The ritual is one of terrible beauty, classic in its formality; and because the ritual remains unchanged and offers so colorful a spectacle, it can findits counterpart in the formalities of the classic ballet with its courtliness and mannered pacing, its sense of timelessness and its links with former centuries.

And perhaps there is here a genuine linking of dance and baseball. For baseball too has a beautiful formality, an unchanging ritual. The umpires gather at home plate to receive the starting lineups handed to them by representatives of the opposing teams, usually - though not invariably - the respective managers. They move in stately procession to home plate or their allotted base. The National Anthem is played and spectators and players alike stand at attention. The fifth inning arrives and the infield is refreshed by attention from the groundsmen. All spectators rise for the seventh-inning stretch. Throughout the game the players are deployed on the field according to the hitter's known proclivities or the state of the game at that particular moment.

All this is reminiscent of the ritual entries of picadors, banderilleros, matadors, the bull himself. All is ordered and unchanging.

Bullfighting, baseball, ballet. Perhaps there is a relationship after all. The difference is in that striving of the dancers to create in exactly the same way over and over. And when the curtain falls, it is "Swan Lake" or "Agaon" or "A Month in the Country" that we have seen. No one has won or lost.