The segment of world opinion that was offended by Americans' boisterous cheering for their athletes during and after the Olympics should understand that it didn't all stem from overweening national pride. Part of it was in gratitude for the athletes' help in an important act of national procrastination.

Every four years (barring a boycott), the world tunes in and watches American athletes behave just like those from other countries by competing in events in which things are measured by the metric system. In fact, one reason the United States fields an Olympic team is to give the rest of the world the idea we're at work learning this new system of weights and measures.

Probably none of the American athletes really knows what a meter is. They look on one distance as 110 yards and another as 220 and so on. But America is able to tell the rest of the world: "Hey, look at us. We're getting this metric system down. Just give us a little more time and you bet we'll learn it. Just a few more years, or maybe a few more Olympiads. We're really serious about learning this."

Then we go home and take it easy for four more years, forgetting about the metric system entirely. The athletes get a ticker tape parade and a visit to the White House for helping us along with this deception.

Fifteen years ago, people in the government and elsewhere were talking seriously about the United States' really adopting the metric system, in the name of making us and our products more compatible with the rest of the world. I thought I was actually going to have to start translating square feet into liters or something.

As the years passed, however, and nothing much happened, many of us began to realize that we could stall on this -- that with luck we could keep putting them off with little excuses and ruses, and eventually live out our natural terms without ever learning the metric system.

We saw a chance to keep the things that made life comprehensible to us: 12-ounce Cokes, a pound of ground beef, the Washington Monument (555 feet high) as a standard of comparison for fatal plunges.

Most important, we could keep our basic unit for measuring large objects: the football field. The 100- yard gridiron is the only thing we have that allows us to visualize the size of space rockets, aircraft carriers, shopping malls, dinosaurs, oil tankers and, in one recent instance, the back yard of a person giving a party in Beverly Hills (the equivalent of four fields).

"Oh, come now," say our foreign friends: "just start thinking in terms of something international like soccer fields -- they're practically the same thing." It's no accident that they make this suggestion. In its effort to get America to be more cosmopolitan, the world has been trying to get us to take up not only the metric system but soccer as well.

As we do with the metric system, we make a show of interest in soccer, chiefly by allowing or even encouraging children to play it. "Hey, this is a great game," we tell the rest of the world. "When you pay close attention, it's not just a bunch of people walking up and down the field and tripping each other; there are some really interesting nuances. It'll probably become very popular in this country -- in time."

In time, also, rivers will change their courses, new ideologies and religions will rise and fall and the Earth will disappear in a cosmic disaster. When you speak of time in those terms it's possible to imagine soccer and the metric system becoming well-established, paying propositions in this part of North America.

If the rest of the world had really wanted America to learn the metric system, it would have worked out a scheme with the United Nations to require us all to go to schoo until we're 50. Then there would be something that could be held over our heads.

Instead we have a situation similar to what would happen if one of your former high school teachers encountered you on the street and ordered you to conjugate Latin verbs or explain the difference between onomatopoeia and alliteration. You wouldn't be able to do either of these things, of course, and you wouldn't have to. Without the threat of being held back a grade or required to attend summer school, there is nothing that can compel a great people to learn something it doesn't want to learn.

After this column appears there will be letters to the editor saying that of course we're learning the metric system; doesn't this man realize we're on an orderly timetable and going along right on schedule, and by the year 1998 we'll be thinking 100 percent in metric terms? This could be true or it could just be part of our effort to fool the world. It should probably be taken with a gram of salt.