HARDLY ANYONE can take much satisfaction in this year's Olympic Games, and the atmosphere in which they took place. The botched affair at Lake Placid last winter was evidence that holding the Games in the United States does not necessarily guarantee competent management. But the proceedings in Moscow were a good deal more ominous for the future of the institution. If there was one point on which the United States and the Soviet Union wholeheartedly agreed, it was the importance of the Games as, above all else, a political statement.

The International Olympic Committee continues to pretend that nothing is going wrong. It keeps saying plaintively that everything would run smoothly if only people meditated more deeply on the spiritual values of the Olympic tradition. Meanwhile, the pursuit of gold medals has become a politicians' obsession in Eastern Europe. In response, direct government aid has been increasing in some of the western countries -- including this one. There are still a few low-cost sports like running, in which winners can be independent athletes. But it is generally true that the distribution of medals accurately reflects the money and organization that the respective governments are prepared to devote to recruiting and training.

These national rivalries are now embedded in the character of the Games, and it is a waste of time to deplore them. It's possible to argue that running and jumping are not, after all, the worst expressions of national antagonisms that are real and enduring. But if the Games are worth perpetuating, it would be useful to keep them away from sites charged with political symbolism -- like Moscow or, for that matter, Los Angeles, where the 1984 summer Games will be held. To repeat a suggestion made quadrennially in this space, it would be wiser to establish one permanent sit, preferably Greece, where the whole idea began. Alternatively, the Games might be rotated among several sites in the countries that the world is prepared to regard as more or less neutral ground. The nature of Olympic rivalries cannot be greatly changed, but they can at least be held within decent limits.