THE MOSCOW OLYMPICS are under way, and there is no point in pretending that many Americans will not follow them as closely as the abbreviated television coverage allows. Some characteristically lustrous Olympic moments can be expected from the athletes of the 80 or so nations in attendance. American spectators will savor them for what they are and, not without a certain wistfulness, hold them up mentally against what might have been. Nods of special sympahty and respect will surely go to those athletes who might have particpated and might have won -- those from the United States and 50-odd boycotting countries and those from the boycotting sports federations of a score or more other countries.

Such interest as there is in the sports aspect of the Olympics, however, will not alter the fundamental fact that the Moscow Games are fraudulent and regrettable. They are fraudulent in that they do not bring together nearly a full complement of the world's best athletes for a celebration of athletic prowess. They are regrettable in that, even in truncated form, they grant their hosts a residual measure of respectability while Soviet troops are slaughtering civilians as well as soldiers of a country invaded without pity or legitimate cause. But only a residual measure. The boycott is substantial enough to end most of the argument over whether it is "effective." It has conveyed to the Soviets, people as well as leaders, the deep objections that Americans and many others have to Soviet aggression. These objections are the more impressive fro involving the renunciation of one of the great popular treats of the modern age: fielding an Olympic team. Moscow's invasion soiled these Olympics. The boycott spoiled them.

Lord Killanin, outgoing president of the International Olympic Committee, could be heard saying in Moscow -- by way of justifying the holding of the Games there -- that "every city that hosts the Games uses them for some sort of propaganda." The West Germans in 1972, he noted, wanted to show they were "no longer Nazis." Lord Killanin evidently sees no distinction between one nation's advertising of its turn to an accepted standard of international behavior and another nation's covering up of its fresh embrace of an unacceptable standard. We wish him tranquillity in retirement. Whatever future the Olympic movement has -- and it does not seem to us a bright future -- will depend on the extent to which the members of the movement set aside the hoax that the Olympics are somehow an exercise in individual striving necessarily and properly devoid of an political tie.