THEY WERE the "push-ins" that almost got pushed out. That's how historians may describe the stamps that the Postal Service will release in Minneapolis next month honoring five of America's greatest Olympians.

Originally planned as a single stamp to honor track great Jesse Owens, the stamps took on added importance at Postal Service Headquarters late last year when the service agreed to become a corporate sponsor of the 1992 Olympic games. Suddenly postal officials were plastering Olympic logos on mailboxes, trucks, buildings and, the executives decided, the famous five rings ought to be on more than one commemorative stamp as well.

A quickly revised plan called for five stamps in a commemorative booklet to salute the athletes. The issue was planned for Friday, July 6, to coincide with the opening of the U.S. Olympic Festival, an athletic event for prospective Olympians in Minneapolis.

But the issue almost was stillborn, the victim of the notoriously acrimonious relationship between the service and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the nation's major stamp printer and a Treasury Department agency. Indeed, the uncertainity over how the Olympic stamps were to be produced, one postal official acknowledges, was a perfect example of why a new working agreement was urgently needed to cover stamp production.

The agencies signed such an agreement last week. Its provisions are designed to give private printers a larger role, especially in the production of commemoratives that have a short lead time.

From interviews with officials familiar with the Olympic stamps, here's what happened.

In early February, the Postal Service informed the bureau that it had expanded the Owens stamp into the booklet of five stamps. Because the issue had been debated at meetings of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, postal officials had assumed that bureau officials, who sit in on the committee's closed-door sessions, were well aware of the plans.

But that wasn't how officials at the bureau's 14th Street printing plant saw it. To them, the idea of hurriedly adding a commemorative stamp booklet to this year's schedule was a classic illustration of the Postal Service's determination to "push in" yet another unscheduled stamp.

"Push-ins" increasingly have played havoc with the bureau's budget and work schedules. This year, as bureau and postal officials were in negotiations over the contract, bureau officials decided to make their dilemma clear.

Neither the Olympians issue, nor another booklet of commemoratives honoring five comedians, which the Postal Service also requested in early February, were on the service's 1990 stamp program, bureau officials pointed out.

Bureau officials say they did not reject the two booklets outright, but say they told postal officials that there was no way they could produce the two booklets this fiscal year because of their commitments for currency production.

Shocked, postal officials hurriedly requested the return of artist Bart Forbes's artwork for the Olympic stamps and said they would seek a private printer.

American Bank Note Co., which has emerged as the government's leading private stamp printer, received the job. Since it has a standing contract for production of commemoratives in sheet format, the Postal Service quickly dropped the idea of booklets.

The resulting five designs appear "se-tenant," side by side, in strips of five stamps. In addition to Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, the others featured on the stamps are:

Ray Ewry, who won a total of 10 gold medals in track and field between 1900 and 1908, including two won at "interim" games held in 1906.

Women's tennis great Hazel Wightman, who won two gold medals for lawn tennis in the 1924 Paris games and later donated the "Wightman Cup" for matches between U.S. and British teams.

Eddie Eagan, the only American to win gold medals in a summer and a winter game. He won his for boxing in the 1920 Antwerp games and as part of the four-man bobsled team at the 1932 Lake Placid games.

Swimmer Helene Madison, who won three gold medals in the 1932 Los Angeles games, the same year she held 16 world and 56 national swimming records.

Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.