Under the gathering clouds of an Olympic boycott, America's athletes and coaches are being forced to ask themselves a fundamental, but frighteningly unfamiliar, question -- "Why?"

The price of excellence in athletics, especially in Olympic sports, has inflated dramatically in recent years.

The 1970s brought into focus a world of international child-athletes and prepubescent gold medalists in a host of sports.

Those champions who were not children often won their fame in games marred by steroids, amphetamines, blood doping and a whole pharmacopeia of chemicals used to produce hybrid ideological warriors.

What is the human cost of becoming a famed Olympic-class swimmer, gymnast or track star -- the next Mark Spitz, Nadia Comaneci or Bruce Jenner?

What is the lasting psychological or physical price that must be paid, even in obscure and profitless sports, to be the best speed skater or volleyball player in the world?

In this new decade, what is the tariff that a great athlete's body and soul must bear? And is that tax becoming more than the human psyche and body can sensibly bear?

Finally, has the whole issue of the Olympics -- whether it can, or even should, continue to exist -- come at an appropriate time? Could the demise of the Games even be a blessing, a cleansing of our national view of sports?

Normally, such questions would be unwelcome among coaches and athletes just months before an Olympiad.

However, in these days of Olympic limbo, it is impossible to avoid such queries. They pop to mind of their own accord in every part of the United States.

In New Haven, Conn., Frank Keefe, the Yale swimming coach and head of the U.S. Pan American Games teams, said, "My swimmers ask themselves why they have been getting up at 5 a.m. and jumping in the water by 5:30 a.m. almost every day for most of their lives.

"They ask why they have trained outdoors when it was so cold that their footprints froze on the pool deck.

"Even with the Olympics as a goal, kids told me, 'Drop dead, coach. I'm not doing it anymore. I can't do it anymore. I can't think.' And they disappear.

"That's always been the natural weeding-out process. Our young club teams wear T-shirts that say, 'Take It To The Limit.' You take it to the limit as many times a day as many days a year as you can," said Keefe, also founder of the elite Fox Catcher Farms swim club in Philadelphia.

"Our kids are in the water five hours a day, and lifting weights another hour, seven days a week, for 12 months a year. And that doesn't count going to school," said Keefe, a mere middle-of-the-road workaholic by swimming standards.

"We're in a sport where there's no money to be had above the table or even underneath it. But the Olmpics pull you on. We tell each other, 'No guts, no glory,'" said Keefe.

"But now, where's the glory? The gem has been taken away."

In Palo Alto, Calif., Robin Campbell, a world-class middle-distance runner, asks herself why she has followed her coach, Brooks Johnson, from St. Albans School in her native Washington to the University of Florida, to Santa Fe (Fla.) Community College and not to Stanford University.

"I have lived so many places and trav eled so much since I was 13," said the 20-year-old Campbell, "that my aunt gave me an address book for Christmas. She told me it wasn't for other people's addresses. It was for all of mine, so I'd know where I was.

"I was only home (in Washington) for one month of 1979," said Campbell, who has had constant injuries for the past four years, including a broken knee cap suffered in midstride that slowed her for 18 months.

"I always try to be nice to all of my relatives in D.C. because you can't tell. By the next time I get home, someone might have died."

"I never show any emotion at home. I'm always hard-faced. But as soon as I get on the airplane, I start to cry.

"I used to love to travel and never come home. I think I've run on every continent. But now I almost hate it. I wish it were like 'Star Trek' and you could just zip through space," said Campbell.

"Since 1973, it's gotten worse every year. Sometimes I joke that I'm going to have a nervous breakdown. But I do wonder what's going on in the back of my mind.

"I had a race that would have qualified me for the Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico and the World Cup in Montreal last summer," said Campbell. "I'd worked all year for it. But when my race came, my mind went blank, I finished sixth and barely broke a sweat. I didn't even try.

"I wonder if I really didn't want to go to Puerto Rico and Montreal."

In Colorado Springs, Flora Hyman has been a star of the U.S. women's volleyball team -- a cofavorite for the Olympic gold with Cuba -- a squad that has been secluded for five years of Marine Corps-style boot-camp training 50 weeks a year.

"I've only given up seven years of my life and my whole future," said the 25-year-old Hyman bitterly. "If there are no Olympics, what have I done with my life?"

Perhaps no American athletes approach the fanaticism of the 14 U.S. women volleyballers, who unashamedly accept the training tactics of the Cubans, Soviets and Japanese as gospel.

"Hypnosis, togetherness through common suffering and ultimately, mind control are my coaching techniques." Coach Arie Selinger who has taken the U.S. team from 19th in the world to No. 2 with a five-year plan that includes reveille -- to -- taps training six days a week in isolated compounds for years at a time with no vacations.

"More than any sport, volleyball demands team unity," said Selinger. "You must be one body with many heads and one heart. Overcoming the ideas of individuality, profit motive and democracy are among our problems. It takes eight years, I believe, to tain a volleyball player to think only of the team in all situations."

The women volleyballers live a spartan, year-round existance at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs -- rising at 7 a.m., practicing from 8 until 12 and from 2 until 6, with lunch and sleep between. After dinner come hypnosis and "mind control" sessions, motivational talks or strategy sessions. "You're so tired you can't wait to get to bed," said Rita Crockett.

"The girls, in addition to their room and board, get $120-a-week expense money," said Selinger, whose U.S. team has played and won all over the world."It's taken us five years to raise that expense money from $20 a week."

"We've all had school, friends and family taken away," said Crockett, a team member for only 18 months.

"I gave up getting married. When I came to Colorado Springs from San Antonio, my boyfriend and I were discussing getting married. Now, we just discuss getting to be friends again. My phone bill to him is $150 a week, but I only get to see him four times a year.

"You can put up with everything if you know you're doing it for a purpose and for your country," said Crockett. "But now it looks like I'll never be known as an Olympian.

"I'm 22 and if we boycott this one, I just don't know if I could do this for four more years. I guess maybe I could. One of our girls is 29 and she's been training for six years."

In Silver Spring, Margie Weiss sees her whole way of life endangered.

She and her husband Greg have been training 100 gymnasts, such as current 14-year-old Olympic hopefuls Sheri Mann and Jackie Cassello, for six hours a day, six days a week, for the last four years in their hand-built wooded complex.

The Weiss family life is built around what Margie Weiss calls "the new athletes" -- the children who start their careers as soon as they can walk, and, if possible, even before.

Her own infant daughter Geremi took her first steps before the age of 1 year on a balance beam. Now, at 6, Geremi can already do gymnastics tricks that no woman could do at the '72 Olympics," according to her mother.

The Weisses also have more good news about Geremi -- she isn't growing. "Early tests indicated that she would grow up to be 5-foot-4," said Margie Weiss. "But I believe that the more gymnastics you do at a young age, the smaller you will be.

"Growth spurts come in two-week bursts. If you're pounding your body, the growth sections of the bones are going to be pounded down," said the mother. "Geremi is really tiny for her age now, which is all right with me."

The Weiss' other daughter, Genna, 7, is already a high diver, with a platform in the backyard. She can do an inward one-and-a-half -- a harrowingly difficult and dangerous dive for adults -- and has won diving meets for 10-and unders "up and down the East Coast," in her mother's words.

The Weisses have helped their children have the compact, fatless bodies of perfect gymnasts by a simple method: they stopped feeding their children at the age of 18 months.

"We rarely have time to stop training to prepare meals," said Margie Weiss. "So, the kids feed themselves as soon as they can open the refrigerator. We always have apples, oranges, yogurt and health foods in there, so it doesn't matter what they grab. They can't go wrong."

The Weisses are certain that their children and their pupils are the athletic wave of the future. "The Russians find 90 percent of their athletes. We find 10 percent of ours," said Margie, "because they test their children."

"The first of the new athletes was Stephanie Willim," she said, speaking of a Weiss protege who could have been the Comaneci of '80. "She was a shoo-in.She was doing tricks three year's ago that no one else had tried yet."

But Willim suffered disk disintegration problems that led doctors to order her to abandon her career permanently or face being crippled for life.

"The Communist countries are far ahead of us," said Weiss, a candidate for the coaching job of the U.S. women's gymnastics team now that Linda Metheney-Mulvahill has been deposed. "It's lucky that they only give out three medals at the Olympics, not a top 40, or they'd crush us in almost every sport.

"But we're learning. We're starting younger and younger in many sports -- swimming, gymnastics, track, alpine sking, diving, speed skating, figure skating and a lot of others.

"Once, kids went to college to start becoming serious athletes. Now, college is already over the hill.

"You go to college to retire on a scholarship."

What will happen to her children, her pupils, her livelihood, if the Olympics are boycotted?

"It's so unjust," she said, "that I refuse to think about it. You can't train like we do with that on your mind."

Margie Weiss offers an example of the ambiguous questions that surround the price of excellence.

She is, by any standard, fanatical. Yet the Weisses' gymnastics school is not some six-acre pocket of Romania transported to Silver Spring.

"We understand that the higher you go, the harder you can fall. We understand that it has to change a young person to hear the national anthem played and see the flag raised in a foreign competition for them," she said.

"You have to put a cushion under these children. We do it with intermediate goals. Each accomplishment on the ladder has its own worth. You don't have to win a gold medal to know that you're worth something."

Margie Weiss knows why her sub-10-year-olds can do terrifying stunts. "They're gullible. You can tell 'em anything. They don't shy from danger because they don't know the consequences. As long as what you tell them is what comes true, they believe you."

Yet she also knows the visceral fear of watching a 7-year-old do a flipping dive with her head inches from a high board. She knows because it is her own daughter.

"The scariest moment of my life was taking Genna to the edge of the high board for the first inward one-and-a-half. I could 'spot' for her because she only weighed 45 pounds. She had completed one somersault before my hands were off her. If I'd waited 'til she was older, I wouldn't have been strong enough to be sure it was safe," she said.

Above all, Weiss is determined that her and her husband's family school will be just that -- a place where all 100 children have something of a sense of family, even though Mann and Cassello are the only two who live full time with them.

"I'm adopted," she said. "I know that the mother isn't the one who bore you, but the one who loved you."

It should not be forgotten that perhaps the most fundamental lure of athletics is its harsh, elite and unrelenting difficulty. The very notion of being a champion has always been tied to the idea of discipline, pain and self-denial.

The Athenian distance runner who ran back from the battle of Marathon dropped dead after delivering his message.

Maybe the most grueling of Olympic sports is outdoor speed skating, where wind-chill factors are often far below zero and frostbit, black toes and frozen lungs are commonplace. No one pays a greater price in pain than speed skaters, those hunched over masochists who often cannot straighten up after a race.

"This year, my motivation suddenly reached a new level," said Nancy Swider, a U.S. national team standout who in '76 set a world record in the 3,000 meters.

Others thought Swider was in peak condition. But the 23-year-old decided to lose 18 pounds off an already hard body.

"I went off perservatives, additives, canned or processed foods, any kind of junk. If I put something wrong in my mouth, I spit it out.

"I've known for years how I wanted to feel. I've seen it in other people.

It's a look of total purpose and purity. But it's never been me.

"I don't like the word 'religious,' but I think we each have a God-given ability. Just once in my life, if just for a few months for the Olmpics, I want to live at the absolute edge of my potential."

That, at the most idealistic level, is the gist of the Olympics.

In fact, the passion for the Olmypics, the cultivated-psychological need for it, is so great, that, for instance, the U.S. women's volleyball team was profoundly divided and shaken two months ago when, after five years, it was given its first vacation.

"I promised them for years that the day they qualified for the Olympics, they could have a vacation," said Selinger. "A promise is a promise, so I had to give them six weeks off. I just got weak."

"The six weeks was history," said Hyman. "Every other team in the world thought we were nuts. Theory says you can't do it."

Some team members didn't even want their promised vacation. "It was voted on" said Hyman, disapprovingly. "So they took one."

"The sacrifices that an athlete make are always woefully overemphasized," said Brooks Johnson, track coach at Stanford. "An athlete is like the workaholic who says, 'I'm doing all this for my wife and family.' Of course, he's doing it for himself.

"Some sort of psychosis is necessary as a driving force for a great athlete.

The premise of being world champion is that you are not normal. Perhaps you even have to be a little sick," averred Johnson.

"That monomania is necessary. If you don't have it, you can't go the whole way to the top."