ACCOMPLISHED ATHLETES from several nations, including the United States, have been stripped of medals won at the Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela. They flunked the new, improved tests designed to catch "dirty" competitors --common parlance for those who have used any of several prohibited drugs, most notably the male hormone testosterone and related steroids thought to facilitate more intensive training and muscle development. Several more competitors left rather than risk expulsion. Olympics officials plan to use testing equipment at least as sensitive and to be just as strict in enforcing the drug prohibitions in 1984.

But why all the fuss? If competition and winning are so important to the athletes and to national prestige, what's wrong with juicing up the players a little bit so that they give the most their bodies and minds can produce? After all, everyone does it, say some U.S. athletes defensively. The East Germans are notorious in this regard, having been fast off the starting block in both good and bad uses of high- tech sports training. The romantic ideal of the unspoiled human machine seems a bit out of place in today's amateur athletics industry. It's hardly an unambiguously glamorous enterprise. Does it make sense for competition to have become so intense, and so profitable, that prepubescent kids are up before dawn, swimming, running and skating for miles, year after year, foresaking childish ways in search of . . . something? And if that's okay and natural, why not a couple of pills to help get the most out of weight training? Sure, the drugs have dangerous side effects, but the sports themselves pose risks.

It must have something to do with spirit, which cattle are presumed to lack, but athletes are supposed to exemplify. Steroid injections and chemically laced food are the staples of Iowa feed lots, and there's nothing spiritual about producing prize-winning physical specimens that way. The protests against East German practices and the adoption of drug prohibitions were partly a counter to unfairness, but more a counter to sheer ugliness. A medal is a testament to the best of body, mind and spirit. Test-tube technology spoils the romantic glory, which is what we need from world class athletics. The expulsions at the Pan American Games are good training for the Olympics.