Chances are you never really believed in Milo of Croton (the one who ate a whole cow at Olympia), and there are some other suspicious records of the early Olympic Games.

But the Greeks went only so far in the gentrification of jocks, and while they idolized them, they also understood them, and once you understand a hero is a human, you do not err by supposing he is any better than he ought to be, taking him all in all.

The Olympics were, of course, a regious festival, and here again the Greeks understood a great deal. There was that king, you recall, with the beautiful daughter whom he placed in the marriage market, with the inconvenient (to more than a dozen unlucky suitors) proviso that the bridegroom had to run off with her. Every time a young man did so, the king caught up and killed the fellow.

And then came Pelops, the suitor to end all suitors. He noticed the appalling number of young men killed in the quest for the princess and assumed he would fare no better if he played by the king's rules.

So he bribed the king's chariot drive to so damage the axle that it would break under pressure, and when the king raced off in hot persuit of Pelops, expecting his usual success in slaughtering suitors, the axle did indeed break, tossing the king through the air to his death.

Pelops then wisely did away with the accomplice and, in honor of his prospects of a quiet and delicious marriage, instituted the Olympic games, dedicating them to the gods.

Prissy folk, nowadays, would ask what kind of honor to the gods can spring from fraud, murder, etc., but the gods of Olympia allowed for little flaws in their worshipers. And even now a few flaws occur here and there in the games, since, you must recall, humans not only take part in them but sponsor them.

In theory, the games celebrate an athlete's quest for the highest excellence possible to the human body. In practice, they are partly that, and partly a propaganda festival.

Unfortunately, perhaps, Americans are somewhat inept at propaganda and symbolism, so that one is not surprised, really, that the quarters for the athletes in the winter Olympics about to start at Lake Placid will be put to dandy use thereafter as a prison for criminals.

The Greeks themselves where always a bit uneasy about Pelops and his cheating, and surely you do -- so they dated their formal history of the games from 776 B.C., some decades after Pelops' legendary founding of them.

The first winner was a cook, an excellent reminder that cooks can do some things well. He won the 200-yard dash.

Later, in the 6th century, this same, Milo, who we do not think really ate the whole cow, not in one day, was the wonder of the world.

He repeatedly won the Olympic wrestling championship. And in private life he could stand on a huge greased platter and invite guys to push him off and nobody ever succeeded. In those days athletes were really strong, and Milo is only one of the ones who carried life-sized statues (either of stone or of bronze) about as if it were no more than a sack of mortar mix frim Hechinger's.

By the 5th century, the one-day divine festival of the games had increased to a five-day event, and since the athletes competed naked and sensibly held the games in warm weather, they did not have any of this Lake Placid business of bobsleds or luge (a wooden sled you cannot steer or brake, and no seat belts) or Alpine skiing or the rest.

We now like to think of those classical games as a sun-dreched olive-browed excursion into the cleanest and purest fields of human effort. Fortunately, we do not know many details. We do know, and love to dwell on it, that when the games took place every four years there was a general truce: No war was allowed to interfere, and enemies could join to compete peacefully in honor of the gods.

It is true that archeolosits, annoying nit-pickers as a class, suggest there was a good bit of commercial hoopla at the games with guys making a buck on souvenir statues of Zeus and even -- Lord, what next -- whorehouses.

And although the games were in theory above politics, naughty rulers often stooped to using the games for political hay-making.

It is neither necessary nor credible, in other words, to assume the games were utterly noble, even in classical times.

But perhaps like religion itself, which the games honored, there was a light at the heart of the concept that no pollution could fully cloud over.

Nobody is likely to forget the murder of Israeli athletes -- one of the most contemptible crimes of this century -- and the list could go on with things unfair, with sad accidents of death on the sleds and the ski slopes.

There also have been occasions, in the games, in which the American press has virtually ignored important victories of others, and dwelt largely on our own successes:

"Bouroland today won eight gold medals in various events and Upper Downy captured six, and we have been talking with another victor, Chuck Dandythumb, who has won for the United States the coveted parchment scroll for fourth place in bowlling. Tell us about it, Chuck. 'Well, it was pretty tough, etc., etc. . . . '"

Let it be. No mortal enterprise meets all the requirements of a dream. But even today you would walk across a room -- hell, across two rooms -- to meet an Olympic winner.

There is this to be thought of, too: Men as good as Socrates took in those games, as spectators. Pindar revved himself up to such heights of verse, celebrating victors of games, that to this day he is mere gibberish translated into our language, because the greater the poety the greater the impossibility of wrenching it from the throat the gods gave it.

If any guy thinks he is going to swindle the gods, in the games or elsewhere, he is wrong. But the one who eats plain and sweats hard, and in a fair contest against the best still wins, is lucky.

There'll be a god that stands near him for the rest of his life, brooding over everything that happens and not letting it work out too badly.

The jocks are attendant on valor, they struggle to win, though the end is veiled in danger. But if they succeed, even their neighbors think them wise.

There are lots of ways to happiness if the gods allow it, but to win at Olympia, the olive branches, that is a big thing. It helps him forget hell. Even death that comes does not obliterate that grace or tear up that garland.

Never mind those who make fun of jocks. They do it to keep from seeming awe-struck. On with the games, that honor the gods. Draw near with faith.