The right of athletes to compete in amateur events of their choice without jeopardizing their sports careers by incurring the displeasure of some governing group must be protected, the Senate Commerce Committee was told yesterday.

Several present and past Olympians and officials connected with the U.S. Olympic movement urged that rights afforded athletes under the U.S. Constitution not be abridged because they are athletes.

At issue is a proposed "Athletes Bill of Rights" that would be incorporated into a multifaceted bill to reorganize the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC voluntarily adopted many of the proposals, including the bill of rights, in its recent reorganization. But, as a precaution against changes, some athletes want the terms made law.

The reorganization closely parallels the recommendations made by the President's Commission on Olympic Sports (PCOS), which undertook a mammoth, two-year study of the operation of amateur athletics in this country.

But there are some amateur sports groups - the National Collegiate Athletic Association in particular - which object to parts of the restructuring plan and the "bill of rights."

At the heart of the disagreement is a debate over who should decide when and where an athlete can compete: the athlete, the school or the national governing body of the particular sport? And, after that decision is made, what recourse has an athlete?

The PCOS recommended the decision be the athlete's, unless the school decides permission should be withheld for reasonable academic or athletic reasons.

The Senate bill - sponsored by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), John C. Culver (D-Iowa) and Richard Stone (D-Fla.) - essentially gives the athlete carte blanch to decide.

The USOC, in a conciliatory gesture toward the NCAA, is leaning toward the schools maintaining some control for academic reasons. The NCAA, which is on the brink of rejoining the USOC, is to state its ease today.

"The NCAA has been saying that the athletes have a right to free competition so long as it doesn't interfere with college programs," said Kenneth Moore, an Olympic marathon runner. "But that's like saying you can have freedom of religion as long as you worship in our church."

He was supported by fellow PCOS commissioners Micki King Hogue, Donna deVarona, Howard K. Smith, Ernest Vandewaghe, Michael Elliott and commission chairman Gerald B. Zornow.

The proposals for resolving disputes call for binding arbitration by the American Arbitration Association and/or seeking relief in the federal courts. Sen. Stevens asked the athletes yesterday if they would be willing to waive their rights to petition the courts.

"Why should athletes be put in a special category that we have to give up our rights in order to get something we deserve?" answered Anita DeFrantz, a bronze medal winner in rowing.

Olympians Sheila Young Ochowicz, who won a gold medal in speed skating, Carl Thomas, an Olympian in water polo, and Moore added that athletes need the "safety valve" of the courts.

The hearings continue today in Room 5110 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.