INDIANAPOLIS -- Forget the old nicknames -- Indian-no-place, Naptown, Brickyard in the Cornfields and Cemetery with Lights. Forget that this is the city that produced the John Birch Society and stole the Baltimore Colts in the dead of night.

The new Indianapolis -- rebuilt, rejuvenated and repainted -- goes on display with the opening of the Pan American Games here Saturday.

The city desperately wants to be thought of as more than the home of The Saturday Evening Post, Benjamin Harrison and an annual car race. It wants to be known as a world-class sports capital and seems willing to do almost anything to achieve that recognition.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, for example, is allowing its elegant, neoclassical concert hall to be used for weight-lifting competition during the games. A harpist, playing "very classical" chamber music, will "get people in the proper mood," said Virginia S. McKay, sales manager of the Circle Theatre.

She said the symphony board approved the use of the hall "as a civic duty," despite some complaints about a bunch of sweaty weight lifters.

Indianapolis, a once-sleepy city of 745,000, regards the 10th Pan American Games, a testing ground for 6,500 amateur athletes and coaches from 38 countries a year before the Olympics, as a giant coming-out party, a chance to strut its stuff, including $2 billion worth of new downtown buildings in the last 13 years.

The games are part of an unusual experiment in urban revitalization. "We're not doing sports for sports sake," said Mayor William Hudnut III, a 6-foot-5 Presbyterian minister. "It is a conscious economic development strategy."

In the late 1960s, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study to find how outsiders viewed the city. The conclusion was unsettling, said Sidney Weedman, a veteran of redevelopment efforts here: "It found Indianapolis didn't have a bad image. It didn't have a good image. It didn't have any image at all."

"Our nickname was Naptown. You heard about us one day a year. That was May 31 when they ran the Indy 500," said Thomas M. Miller, chairman of Indiana National Bank, the state's largest.

This wasn't all bad. "If we didn't have an image, we had an opportunity to create an image for ourselves," said Weedman, a former theatrical promoter who heads the development of a $200 million state park and zoo near downtown.

But what kind of an image?

Indianapolis had no mountains, harbors, beaches or imposing skyscrapers. The city's only waterway, the White River, looked like a big drainage ditch. The weather was nothing to brag about, either: too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter.

In the mid-1970s, however, sports evolved as an image-making and economic tool -- "by accident, good fortune and some good thinking," Weedman said.

The city, capital of a state obsessed by basketball, built a $21.5 million natatorium for swim and diving competition; a $5.9 million track stadium; a $7 million tennis complex that became the home of the U.S. Clay Court championships; a $1.3 million soccer complex; a $2.5 million velodrome for bike racing; and a $77.5 million domed stadium to lure the Colts' National Football League franchise from Baltimore.

They were financed with a combination of public, private and philanthropic money. The Lilly Endowment, established by the family that founded the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company, has led the sports push, donating $25 million for the Hoosier Dome and $11 million for the natatorium. Like the track stadium, they are on the booming campus of Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

Most of the new facilities are open to the public, adding to their popular appeal and producing a few compelling human-interest dramas. Last spring, an Indianapolis teen-ager named Erin Hartwell tried out the Major Taylor Velodrome. Hartwell turned out to be a natural. Within two weeks, he was turning in world-class times, according to veldodrome manager Chuck Quast. By July, he won a national juniors title on a borrowed bike.

"We basically discovered a world-class athlete. He was a walk-on," said Quast. "He probably never would have discovered his potential if he lived in another city."

Indianapolis also made an aggressive effort to lure the headquarters of sports organizations after Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which required separate governing bodies for every sport.

"What that did was create 30 or 40 new companies," said Theodore R. Boehm, president of the Indiana Sports Corp., a nonprofit group that promotes amateur sports here. "All of a sudden, there was a new market to corner."

Indianapolis is now the home of the Athletic Congress of the USA, the Amateur Athletic Union, the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Institute for Fitness and Sport, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the U.S. Gymnastic Federation and bodies governing amateur competition in diving, synchronized swimming and rowing.

An aggressive downtown revitalization campaign accompanied the sports boom. Renovated showplaces, including two theaters and the 99-year-old Union Station railway depot, new hotels and office buildings dot the area. Since 1984, 15 new hotels have opened, and convention business has tripled.

But not everyone is happy. Some complain that the city's attention to downtown has come at the expense of neglected neighborhoods. Others say low-paying service jobs are replacing better-paying manufacturing jobs.

"I have a master's degree, and I'm having a devil of a time making a living here," said Jeffry Miller, 30. "I made $12,000 last year working two jobs {one in a factory, one at a newspaper}, and now I've been laid off one of my jobs. I'll probably make about $10,000 this year . . . . The city is growing, but it may be growing at the expense of its people."

The new Indianapolis has encountered some obstacles. A taxpayers' group, for instance, defeated a $45 million Pan American Games bond issue with surprising ease two years ago.

"We aren't against the Pan Am Games or sports. A lot of people were just fed up with making welfare payments to developers," said Carl Moldthan, a mayoral candidate who led the fight against the bond issue as head of the Indianapolis Taxpayers Association. "For the most part, people are proud of what's going on. They like the glamor, but they start asking questions when they find out how much it is costing them."

There was also a striking lack of interest in having Indianapolis make a bid for the 1988 Olympics when student rioting in Korea cast doubt on Seoul as the site. Many thought Indianapolis was not ready.

"There was very low enthusiasm in the business community," one business and civic leader said.

" 'You've got to be kidding,' people kept saying."

The city had not planned to accommodate an event as large as the Pan American Games for at least four years. This year's games were first awarded to Chile, which defaulted, and then to Ecuador, which also backed out. When it captured the games 2 1/2 years ago, Indianapolis was one of the few cities with enough suitable facilities to step in on short notice.

Officials here expect the games to attract hundreds of thousands of fans to 286 events in 27 sports; the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles had 221 events in 23 sports. Local organizers estimate that the games will pump $175 million into the Indianapolis area economy -- which could use the help.

Indianapolis has lost 39,000 manufacturing jobs since 1969. Western Electric, one of the state's largest employers with 8,000 workers, closed its plant here two years ago. RCA-Ariola and Chrysler have announced that they will end operations soon.

Downtown boosters see the games as a multimillion-dollar publicity bonanza. They beam when they talk about the 26 hours of coverage that CBS-TV intends to devote to the games, beginning with opening ceremonies Saturday, produced by Walt Disney World at the Indianapolis Speedway.

"The focus of the whole sports world will be on Indianapolis during the 16 days of the games," said William K. McGowan Jr., president of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. "If {U.S. track star} Carl Lewis sets a world record in the long jump, that news will go to every country in the world, and so will the name Indianapolis."

The city's renaissance has already generated the kind of headlines money can't buy -- "Indianapolis: City on the Rebound" in National Geographic; "Star of the Sunbelt" in The Wall Street Journal.

"People are becoming aware of Indianapolis. They're looking at us in a different way than they did a few years ago," said bank chairman Miller. "The employment sports provides is negligible. But it is part of a package.

"It was a niche no one else was filling, a niche that fit the city," he added. "It was risky. There's a lot of money involved in this. You have to remember the dome stadium was built before we had a football team. It took a lot of guts."