WHEN I WAS in high school, we were told that football was a wonderful activity because it promoted something called sportsmanship. Having learned that, the fellows on the teams also learned how to gang-tackle and gouge eyes. And after the game the fans from one team and fans from the other team practiced their own version of sportsmanship by brawling all over town. After a while, I got the feeling I was being lied to.

I have the same feeling now and this time the case in point is the Olympics. Just the other day, for instance, some guy on my car radio opined as to how the United States should never pull out of the Olympics because "the Olympics should be above politics." My response to this, yelled back at the radio, is "since when" and "why?"

Before I get to that, I must report that about half the town called in to tell the fellow how right he was. He loved it and kept repeating his statement until it took on the sound of a catechism, which, in a way, it is. It is as widely accepted as the notion we heard in high school about how football builds brotherhood. When someone did call in to contest this revealed truth about the Olympics, the guy on the radio just kept repeating his statement over and over again -- "the Olympics should be above politics."

The fact of the matter is, of course, that the Olympics have never been above politics. They are an extension of politics, which is why, when you come to think of it, athletes do not compete as individuals but as members of national teams.

Even when I was a kid and the world was somewhat simpler, we were told that we won the Olympics (we always won in those days) because we were good guys, because the American system produced better athletes. Now we lose not because we aren't still good guys but because the other guys are really bad. They pay their athletes and shoot their women up with hormones so they look like King Kong in skirts.

There is something about the Olympics and sports in general that is supposed to be almost otherworldly, cleansing, in its way nearly spiritual. This is what was meant when we were told back in high school about the positive values of football and this why people still believe that a bad boy can be made good if only you can find him the proper sport.

Authoritarian regimes understand this and they have not hesitated to capitlize on this statement. Back in 1936, for instance. Hitler used the Olympics to try to show that his Germans were indeed the Master Race and, incidentally, that his regime was not as awful as it was supposed to be. That year he went out of his way to clean up Germany, taking down signs barring Jews from public places. The games were held in Berlin and William L. Shirer, making secret notes in what later was published as his "Berlin Diary," felt that Hitler pulled off his ruse. "I'm afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propanganda," he wrote.

The Soviets understand this. It is precisely for political reasons, both internal and external, that they so very much want to hold the Olympics in Moscow. It legitimizes their regime both to their own people and to the world at large. And it is this urge -- this urge to harness sports in the cause of politics -- that strikes all authoritarian regimes at one time or another. For some reason, nothing cleanses like a good track meet.

But this, to be fair, was not the point of the guy on the radio, nor the ones who called in to tell him how right he was. What they were saying is not that the Olympics are above politics, but that they should be. That was the message that kept getting repeated and this is the one, so to speak, that brought down the house.

The trouble is that the proposition makes no sense. Politics isn't some guy making a speech. Politics is why the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Politics is why the hostages are being held in Tehran and it's why Anatoly Schransky and many others are being held in Soviet jails. Nothing is above politics. Politics is who gets to live and who gets to die. No one gets killed in this world for double-dribbling.

It would be nice to have the Olympics and watch it on television and it would be awful for the athletes involved to have their dream of a lifetime canceled. But going to Moscow also means acceptance or approval of the Russians and what they have done. If it doesn't mean that to us, it sure means that to them, which is why they have spent so much time and money getting ready for the games.

It comes down, in the end, to something my mother taught me when she would not let me play with some kid who had done a bad thing. It was her way of saying, "We disapprove." It is a time we said just that to the Russians. We ought to play at home this summer.