Three medals symbolizing the Olympics of the Mind were draped over the podium at the Mayflower Hotel Tuesday.

"A scholar, too, is a hero," said NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks as he helped launch the Washington, D.C., Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO). Already operating in 70 other cities, this NAACP-sponsored program was conceived to stimulate black youth interest in the arts, letters and sciences by having them compete anually for cash prizes of $1,000, $750 and $500 in addition to a gold silver and bronze medal.

Longtime Chicago newspaper columnist Vernon Jarrett, who started ACT-SO there four years ago, told a group of adults and students that black people need additional role models.

"We already know our basketball and football players -- but we now need to know our physicists, chemists, marine biologists and poets."

An ACT-SO task force is distributing to area schools eligibility applications that list 20 categories of competition. Architecture, biology film making, electronics, energy and sculpture are among the categories in which students will be encouraged to showcase exhibits or projects. The competitive atmosphere will be downplayed, however.

According to Earl Jones, a retired Bureau of Standards acoustical technician who has worked with youth projects in the D.C. public school system and is a member of the task force, "There will be no losers." Everyone who enters the competition will receive a prize. Although plans are incomplete, ACT-SO probably will involve local and regional competitions, with winners going on to the national event to be held at the NAACP's summer convention in Denver.

John Sizemore, an auditor with the Department of Justice and another task force member, said that the student's mind can now be "turned on to react to positive aspects of education rather than the much-publicized negative aspects of the school situtation."

But 14-year-old Evanista Maney of Garnet-Patterson Junior High -- who attended the presentation with a delegation of students representing D.C. schools -- had the last word as she spontaneously strode to the medal-bedecked podium and announced loudly and clearly: "I like what all of you people are doing for us. I will feel honored to compete. The loud applause that followed her unexpected remarks indicated that the program already was working.