WITH ALL THAT gliding, whirling, soaring and careering down icy inclines, the Winter Olympics offer a stunning vision of what athletically gifted people can do when they're freed of certain earthly constraints. The more venerable summer games can't match it -- in them, an Alberto Tomba would actually have to sweat for his gold medals.

On Saturday night, when the women's figure skating finals were held, there were as many American television sets tuned to the event as are usually tuned to a Super Bowl game. With all respect to the National Football League, it was just as good a show -- with better music.

But America, despite its leap-year fascination with the Olympics, isn't all that dedicated to winter sports the rest of the time -- and as usual the count of medals at the end of these games showed it. U.S. athletes won just six, while the Soviet Union and East Germany cleaned up (also as usual). The U.S. Olympic Committee is looking for ways to narrow the medal gap. We wish it well, but given the reluctance of Americans to go in either for heavy subsidies or for the sort of intense sports training and selection favored by East bloc nations, it probably won't make a great deal of headway.

It will be no national catastrophe if it doesn't. The shining moments of these games weren't the methodical accumulation of medals by the Eastern athletic powers, but rather the surprises, the displays of character, the examples of courage and perseverance and the moments when many millions of people were united in sympathy for a competitor. When the American figure skater Debi Thomas stumbled a second and third time Saturday night, a reporter sitting with her mother in the stands recorded her words, "Oh, my poor baby . . . it's so sad." How many millions of mothers around this country -- around the world -- who had followed this young woman's rise were at that instant saying nearly those same words?

Some other memorable moments: the speed skating victory of Bonnie Blair, the fall of Dan Jansen after his sister's death, the jubilation of the Finnish hockey team following its victory over the Soviets, the insouciance of Alberto Tomba and the exuberance of those East German young people jumping up from their seats and running out to dance with the others at the closing ceremonies. There is a moment at the end of each Olympic Games when the call is issued to "the youth of the world" to reassemble four years hence. It never fails to be moving, for reasons that can't be accounted for by any scorekeeping.