One of the "amateur" athletes admitted, on national television, that what they had done did look "kinda bad." It had, as he put it, a sort of "dirty-needle effect," but he believed that that impression, as someone used to say in the White House, "would be wrong."

Besides, as another of the athletes interviewed on TV (this was on the CBS Morning News) explained, there should be no big deal about this. Ever since it was all right for amateurs to accept "sponsors" and promote their goods for fees, just about anything goes.

A third young man interviewed was equally blase. Asked why they had done it, he replied:

"When you want to win, there's nothing else in your mind except that winning."

I am referring to the news, first revealed by Rolling Stone magazine and now confirmed by some of the participants on national TV, that members of the U.S. Olympic cycling team underwent "blood doping" or "blood packing" before they competed in the Los Angeles Games last summer. That is, they underwent blood transfusions to increase the volume of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the muscles. Thus, it was hoped, their endurance would be enhanced and their ability to perform would greatly increase.

It would help them to win.

That, as we all know, is the goal of every true American. That old nonsense about what matters most is how you play the game -- to say nothing of exhibiting sportsmanlike traits of the gracious loser if you don't win -- has as much relevance to sports today as the three-wheel cycles of the 1890s do to the sleek models our athletes pumped away on in Los Angeles.

Today, winning is everything. Being No. 1 has become the national slogan and ethic. Anything that helps you reach that goal of winning and then being able to shout "I'm (or We're) No. 1" is justifiable.

So, it seems, is the case in this latest affirmation of an end-justifies-the-means collective national state of mind. They won, they became No. 1.

As one of the team members said, in justifying the "blood doping," only a few years ago the U.S. cycling team was ranked No. 22 in the world. Then, year by year it climbed the ladder of success until, nirvana, last summer by doing what had to be done it became No. 1. And to hell with the rules or questions of right and wrong.

This nasty little scandal involves something more than just a few medal-hungry athletes. The athletes didn't perform those blood transfusions on themselves. Their doctors did, apparently with the full knowledge of their coaches. Then they all kept quiet about it.

In other words, here you have a full-fledged coverup of a calculated commission of an illegal act, illegal in the sense that it directly violates U.S. Olympic Committee policy.

It makes you wonder what else has been going on with our so-called amateur athletes, and what else occurred with our Olympians. Which is why this sort of scandal is so poisonous: It arouses suspicions and taints everyone.

Saddest of all is that none of this comes as a surprise. Sports is so big a business in America, the payoffs so immense for athletes and commercial sponsors alike (think of the bucks that flow from the Super Bowl, the single greatest annual advertising event), that the pressures to win at any cost by any means become almost irresistible.

Standards, such as they are, are increasingly meaningless, too. The loutish behavior of a John McEnroe or the snarling sore-loser manners of a Mary Decker become the norm. In American sports today Superbrats reign -- and are rewarded in princely fashion, however outrageous and offensive their personal behavior.

So why should any athlete bother about the rules? They're made to be broken, aren't they, just the way records are made to be broken?

It was not always this way. In a lovely book called "The Eternal Olympics," edited by Nicolaos Yalouris, director of the National Archaelogical Museum in Athens, this history is recounted:

"The Eleans made great efforts to retain and sharpen the interest of all the Greeks in the Games, and they achieved this by strict observance of the rules of the competitions and their impartial verdicts. For there were rules in force, like the conventions of today, which were unwritten, but which the Eleans were careful to preserve with religious devotion. It was for this reason that they assembled the Hellanodika for 10 months in order to train them. It had been demonstrated that all the Greeks religiously respected and observed the rules, and Pindar describes the regulations that applied in the Olympic Games as 'Laws of Zeus.' "

This same account states: "Throughout the long history of the Olympic Games the rules were seldom broken." When they were, the offender was severely punished by either a fine, exclusion from the Games or corporal punishment. Flogging was one of the lighter penalties.

I don't expect flogging, and expulsion is after the fact. But at least it would be nice to hear some of our Eleans, our leaders -- and not just sports leaders, either -- speak out loudly and denounce this whole shabby business. But how naive can you get. And besides, it probably would be considered subversive, and certainly unpatriotic.