The weightlifter - who will not be identified because he still is competing and using drugs that are banned by the International Olympic Committee - looks at first glance to be in the peak of health. Muscular and superbly conditioned, he appears to be a portrait of the athlete as a young man.

The only surface blemishes are tiny xanthelasmas - little beads of cholesterol - in the soft tissue beneath his eyes. These globules on a physique that otherwise is taut and fat-free are, to the experienced eye, a telltale sign of heavy use of anabolic steroids.

The weightlifter hardly is unique among his athletic peers. Evidence compiled by The Washington Post in recent months suggests that the use of steroids and other additive drugs (those intended to improve performance beyond the level the individual normally is capable of) and restorative drugs (those intended to treat injury and pain in order to permit the athlete to compete at or near his normal level) is more widespread now than ever before.

In some athletes, steroids - synthetic derivatives of the male hormone testosterone, which is similar in chemical structure to cholesterol - produce a full-fledged "moon face" because of fluid retention. But this particular power lifter has only barely noticeable deposits above his cheeks.

The rest of his body looks truly Olympian, a celebration of physical culture.

But his is burting. Only in his early 20s, he has enough aches and pains for a man four times his age.

He weighs approximately 235 pounds, 30 more than when he started taking steroids. He tried to gain more weight by increasing his dosage to 500 milligrams a day of Dianabol at the peak of his training-a full bottle of 100 5-mg. tablets, or about 25 times the amount athletes a decades ago thought they could take without risking grave damage to themselves.

The mysterious feeling of exhilaration he experienced when he first started taking steroids vanished some time ago, giving way instead to a more-or-less constant sluggishness.

But instead of "going off" steroids or drastically reducing his dosage-as a doctor surely would have advised, if he had any medical monitoring-he compared notes with his fellow lifters, continued his steroid intake, and started taking stimulants to overcome his lethargy.

Gradually, in order to remain eager for workouts even though the steroids had inhibited the normal function of his adrenals, and because his system was developing a higher tolerance, he increased his dosage of "uppers," too. This made it difficult for him to sleep at night, so he began taking sedatives as well, to ease him down from his chemical "high."

He has difficulty eating. He has to force-feed himself, and even then he has trouble keeping food down. His liver is swollen, unable to dispose of the metabolites that are by-products of his unnatural steroid consumption.His joints ache from arthritis. He could neither train nor compete without anti-inflammatory and pain medication.

This is a true story, not a hypothetical case.

And the sad fact is that this power lifter is not an outrageous anomaly-merely an extreme example of a set of problems that beset many top athletes not only in weightlifting, but also in various weight events (hammer, discus, javelin, shot put), wrestling, football, body building and other sports.

He is perhaps the ultimate example of a new and troubling species: the athlete who routinely perceives of chemical manipulation of the body-his own and his competitors'-as part of the game. He barely gives the notion a second thought.

"I know that the players of today have no fear of drugs, no damn fear at all," said Jack Kvancz, Catholic University's basketball coach, who thinks-to turn Roosevelt's phrase inside out-that the thing we have to fear most is lack of fear itself.

"They've grown up in a generation that will smoke, swallow or snort anything, I guess. I remember how scared I was of any kind of drugs, but nothing is foreign to the kids today."

And when certain substances are reputed to be performance-enhancing-amphetamines and anabolic steroids are the classic modern examples-their usage snowballs dramatically, and gradually seeps from the world clas down to junior levels of competition.

"When you keep getting data about doping at international competitions, and communications from high school and college coaches complaining about it, and reports of girl runners taking downers at night and cocaine the morning of their races, and things like that-well, you begin to get the idea that this isn't like a sporadic case of tuberculosis, it's more nearly like a flu epidemic," said Dr. Clayton Thomas of Plamer, Mass., an internist and member of the U.S. Olympic Committee's drug task force.

Contemporary sports pages regularly report drug-related incidents.

Within the past year, for example, five East European athletes (four Soviets and a Bulgarian) were disqualified from the European Track and Field Championships at Prague and suspended for using steroids. . . an American gymnastics coach accused East Europeans of giving "brake drugs" to young girls to delay the onset of puberty and resultant physical changes. . . the leader of the Tour de France, cycling's premier event, was disqualified when it was discovered that he was concealing an elaborate apparatus under his armpit for substituting a pure specimen for his own amphetamine-tainted uring during postrace drug testing. . . a Scottish soccer player was barred from the World Cup and sent home in desgrace when tests showed he had taken illegal stimulants. . . athletes in several American pro sports were arrested for possession of or trafficking in cocaine and other "recreational" drugs. . . a Soviet swimmer was disqualified from the World Aquatic Championships when he tested positive for steroid use. . . and an East German woman sprinter who defected to the West claimed that she had been forced to take drugs, later identified as anabolic steroids, even though they had disconcerting masculinizing effects.

These stories, and variations on similar themes, have become familiar if not commonplace. But they may represent only the tip of a huge and worrisome iceberg.

While the subject of drug use and abuse in sports has been close to the surface for more than a decade, occasionally popping through to reveal frightening glimpses, no one quite knows how deep it goes or how destructive it could be.

Only now are the water to charted. The U.S. Olympic Sports Medicine Committee formed a drug task force lat fall. At roughly the same time, British Sports Minister Denis Howell opened a Drug dontrol and Teaching Center at London University's Chelsea College. In both cases the objective is to measure, study and eventually come to grips with doping in sports.

"I suppose there are some sports that don't have any drug problems, but most do-professional and amateur, from high school age up," said Dr. Irving Dardik, a New Jersey cardiologist who heads the USOC Sports Medicine Committee.

"So far we have not been able to gauge the problem accurately, but my gut feeling is that it is big, very big, and gettign worse."

Among other findings, which will be elborated in this series of articles:

1) The use of anabolic steroids is rampant in track and field, particularly in the weight events, and growing rapidly in some other sports. It is commonly believed by athletes, coaches and physicians in the track and field community that the vast majority of men competing at world class levels in the hammer, discus, javelin, shot put and decathalon, as well as in weightlifting and bodybuilding, use steroids.

"I honestly cannot name one guy, and I know just about all of them personally, who is not using some steroid," says hammer George Frenn, who admits to having maintained a formidable pharmaceutical armamentarium himself.

2) A growing number of women in top-level international and collegiate competition are taking steroids, synthetic male hormones, despite mounting fears of undesirable side effects and the warning of Dr. Thomas, a consultant on human reproduction at the Harvard School of Public Health, that supplying such drugs to women "may in the future be rrclassified from unethical to criminal."

3) In addition to the documented potential adverse effects of anabolic steroids-liver disfunction, loss of appetite, fullness, testicular atrophy and reduced sperm count, among others-some doctors are becoming increasingly alarmed about the possible long-term effects of the prolonged, heavy usage many athletes consider routine.

4) Despite ambivalene on the part of the scientific community about whether or not anabolic steroids "work" in promoting lean muscle mass and strength, the overwhelming majority of athletes who use them in conjunction with high-level training believe they do.

East-West polarization and mutual suspicion also has produced an athletic chemical race not unlike the arms race. Athletes everywhere seem to be sure that their competitors are using drugs, especially steroids.

"I think a lot of athletes would like not to have to take anything, but they are convinved that their rivals are taking drugs, and that they must do so too if they're going to compete on the same level," said Dr. Anthony Daly, a U.S. Olympic team orthopedist who has the respect and confidence of many American athletes.

5) Little meaningful research has been done in this country in recent years on the benefits and dangers of drugs used by athletes-particularly the anabolic steroids-because medical schools and research hospitals are loathe to approve experiments on human beings, especially using the mega-doses of drugs athletes consume.

6) While National Football League officials and team physicians insist there is "no drug problem in the NFL," between a quarter and a third of the played on some teams-including last year's Washington Redskins-regularly take stimulants on game days, according to a number of active and recently retired players.

Significantly, that figure is not challenged by Charlie Jackson, the drug-abuse expert on the NFL security staff. Whether this constitutes a "drug problem," and a menace to the "wired" players and their opponents alike, is a matter of varied interpretation.

7) Although regulations enacted and eductional programs instituted as a result of congressional inquiries into drug abuse in sports in the early 1970s have curtailed the misuse of legitimate medications and cut off the supply of stimulants to players by their team doctors and trainers, they have not eradicated amphetamine use in either professional or college sports.

While the use of stimulants is apparently now minimal in baseball and basketball - sports which went through "pep pill crazes in the '60s and early '70s-it is much more wide-spread in football.

The NFL has no procedures for inspection of players for stimulant use on game days, and security man Jackson candidly admits that without urine testing-adamantly opposed by the NFL Players Association-the league has no surefire means of stopping players from getting "uppers" from outside sources.

8) Some Southern California athletes make regular "steroid runs" to Mexico, where the drugs are available over the counter, and bring back bulk orders - several thousand dollars' worth at a time - to keep themselves and friends supplied for weeks or months.

9) Drugs testing has worked as a deterrent in some sports where doping was rampant, notable European soccer and cycling, but it is too costly and cumbersome to be practical for most amateur competitions below the Olympic and world championship levels.

Testing for steroids is particularly difficult because the procedure is very expensive, and athletes have found that they can avoid detection by "going off" the drugs several weeks before they are tested, or by switching temporarily from the synthetic anabolic to testosterone, which cannot be differentiated in qualitative test on males from that produced naturally by the body.

Athletes also have found various ways of confounding tests for stimulants, including taking small doses of many different drugs instead of large doses of any one.

10) Use of stimulants and steroids has declined; but is far from extinct, in major college sports. Steroids still are a regular part os weight-trainning programs for football players and other athletes at many schools, and are widely used in track and field.

Use of both stimulants and steroids is increasing in high school sports, especially in urban areas where athletes, like other students, become aware of drugs at an earlier age and have relatively easy access to them.

11) A growing health hazard exists among primarily recreational runners - even running doctors - who take inappropriate medications to try to improve their times particularly in the marathon.

Several runners have nearly died from taking caffeine, in the form of over-the-counter No-Doz tablets, to combat fatigue during marathons. Caffeine can cause heart arrhythmia (irregular beating), particularly when the body is under stress.

Two California doctors almost died after taking Lomotil, a powerful anti-diarrhea medication, before a marathon. They did not want to be slowed by the necessity of making a "pit stop," but in addition to preventing a bowel movement, they also temporarily paralyzed the action of their sweat glands, a side effect of one of the drug's ingredients. Consequently, their bodies overheated and they collapsed and nearly died of heat stroke.

12) While athletes are rarely, if ever, ordered to take pain-killing injections in order to play, many do it by choice - either to fulfill an internal need or because they feel pressure to play from teammates, coaches and management.

Some team physicians feel a responsibility to "protect the athlete from himself," and consider it part of their duty to forbid a player from competing if there are serious risks that he will harm himself by doing so. Others think their only responsibility is to point out the risks and let the athlete decide whether or not to play.

Usually, at least at the top level, the athlete decides to play.

In professional sports, with their enormous material rewards, a player quickly becomes accustomed to a big salary and glamorous life style, and is tempted to take whatever chemical aids he thinks are necessary in order to keep his job as long as he can.In amateur athletics, the quest for meals and glory is similarly powerful.

"The stakes are high, and the public, the sports fans, in some cases even governments are pushing for higher and higher levels of achievement," said Harold Connolly, a four-time Olympian and 1956 gold medalist in the hammer throw and now a high school teacher in Santa Monica, Calif.

Connolly was part of the first generation of track and field athletes to use anabolic steriods. "For eight years 1964-72), I would have to refer to myself as a hooked athlete," he said in 1973, testifying before a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating the proper and improper use of drugs by athletes.

In that testimony, Connolly traced the growth of drug use during his years as an Olympian. In 1956 at Melbourne, he said, "Very few athletes used drugs to increase performance. There were certainly no anabolic steroids being used, to my knowledge. . . By 1968, athletes in every event were using anabolic steroids and stimulants.

"It was not unusual in 1968 to see athletes with their own medical kits, practically a doctor's, in which they would have syringes and all their various drugs . . . I knew any number of athletes on the 1968 Olympic team who had so much scar tissue and so many puncture holes in their backsides that it was difficult to find a fresh spot to give them a new shot. . .

"I relate these incidents to emphasize my contention that the overwhelming majority of the international track and field athletes I have known would take anything and do anything short of killing themselves to improve their athletic performance . . .

"As I look back on the eight years I experimented on myself, I fell fortunate that the cautious doses I took did not result in the painful, dibilitating side effects a number of athletes I knew experienced from overdosing on sports medicine. I was lucky, but what of today's youngsters with the peer group pressures, the greater prevelance and availability of all manner of drugs, and the increased demands of athletic competition?"

Connolly reread that testimony recently, and the chief refrains sounded by him and a parade of other witnesses still resound with currency.

"I said to myself, 'Jesus, nothing has really changed since '73, except that athletes now are taking doses that would have blown our minds, and kids are taking them younger," said Connolly. "I don't think anything constructive ever came out of those hearings."