POPEYE is weak and tired. He needs something to give him quick energy, bulging muscles and superhuman strength.

He pulls out a can of spinach and gulps down the contents. Presto. No one, not even the bully Bluto, can stop him now.

It is not that simple outside of cartoons, of course. But nevertheless, athletes for generations have been searching for that elusive can of spinach.

"If you look at the history of sport, doping goes way back. It's fascinating, really," said Dr. Dan Hanley of Bowdoin College, the U.S. medical representative to the International Olympic Committee, who has worked with athletes since 1946.

"At one time or another, practically everything under the sun has been used, and all by believers.

"Ancient athletes though the hooves of an Abyssinian ass, boiled in oil with rose petals, improved performance. In more modern times, the Kaffirs in Southern Africa used something called dop, a beverage made from alcohol and cola extract. That's where the word 'doping' comes from.

"When ether was a new drug, athletes dropped it on sugar cubes and took that. And when it was first discovered that nitroglycerine would dilate the coronary arteries of the heart, some mental pygmy decided that if you took that, the heart would get more blood, beat faster, and enable you to run faster. So for years sprinters took nitroglycerine before a race. It gave them a hell of a headache, but didn't do much else."

The list of potions, exlixirs, and chemicals tried by athletes over the years boggles the mind.

In 1904, after Olympic marathon winner Tom Hicks collapsed and was revived by four doctors, it was discovered that he had taken a concoction of strychnine and brandy.

For some athletes of the '30s, gelatine was supposed to be the secret of success. "Athletes poured powdered gelatine into orange juice and drank it by the barrelful because they thought it improved performance," said Dr. Hanley.

Athletes are by nature curious, highly motivated and egotistical enough to think of themselves as physically indestructible. Historically, they have been more than willing to experiment with any substance they thought could make them quicker, stronger, tougher or better prepared for the competition at hand.

Sometimes, the results have been comical, as when the teen-age Billie Jean Moffitt (later Billie Jean King), concerned about an unaccustomed tightness in her tummy on the eve of her Wimbledon debut in 1961, took a laxative for the first time in her life. She took too much, and spent the night sprinting between her bedroom and the lavatory down the hall.

Sometimes the results have been tragic. A number of athletes have collapsed in competition from misguilded or excessive attempts to bolster their performance chemically. Some have died.

The deaths usually have repercussions, but not always positive ones. In 1968, after a young Frenchman named Yves Mottin died following his victory in a cross-country bicycle race, two fellow cyclists were charged with having smuggled in from Italy and given to Mottin the amphetamines which contributed to his death. But the whole sordid episode did little to stop the rampant use of stimulants in cycling, a sport riddled with drug abuse for years.

It is astounding how wide-eyed adventuresome and undiscriminating athletes can be in their use of drugs.

Dr. Clayton Thomas, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee's drug task force, remembers that in 1967, the year before drug testing was introduced in the Olympic Games, physicians asked all the American athletes at the trials for the Winter Games if they were taking any medications.

One of the country's leading speed skaters produced a bottle of pills he had been given by the coach of the Italian speed-skating team at a competition in Europe. He didn't know what they were or what they were supposed to do, but he had been taking them on the rival coach's say-so.

"It was a German drug, and we looked it up and it turned out to be an anabolic steroid," said Dr. Thomas. "For all he knew, it might have been cyanide. But he figured if those pills were good enough for the Italians, they were good enough for him. That just goes to illustrate how loosely some athletes regard experimenting with drugs."

Today, athletes have sources of a bewildering variety of drugs: anabolic steroids to build bulk and strength, anorexics (hunger-suppressants) to reduce the appetite of jockeys and wrestlers who have to "make weight," stimulants to accelerate the heartbeat and mask fatigue, "mood modifiers" to reduce anxiety, tranquilizers to slow the pulse rate and steady the hand.

When they are through, a few athletes use powerful diuretics to flush traces of banned chemicals out of their systems before they undergo drug tests.

Athletes and their coaches are forever searching for ways to adapt modern medicine to their benefit. Thus, a few athletes who have the medical facilities and knowhow at their disposal have tried "blood doping"-a controversial technique whereby some of an athlete's blood is drawn, frozen for about six weeks, and then reinjected shortly before competition, presumably increasing the volume of blood and oxygen-bearing hemoglobin in his system.

A number of women athletes admittedly use contraceptive pills not for birth control but to alter their menstrual cycles so as not to have a period at the time of competition.

Some Western coaches have accused their East European counterparts of giving girl gymnasts "brake drugs" to delay the onset of puberty, so that tiny bodies that have been painstakingly trained will not undergo the natural changes in size and shape that shift their center of gravity.

The East Europeans deny using such drugs, but there is little question that the highly successful Romanian training program is based at least partly on the conviction that if the fat content of a girl's body is kept to less than 3 percent of her weight, puberty will be postponed.

"There is no denying that the training regimen of Bela Karoli, Nadia Comaneci's coach, is completely productive, but is it ethical or humane?" wondered Gordon Maddux, a former college gymnastics coach who now commentates on the sport for ABC-TV.

"For instance, when the Romanians toured the U.S. in October 1977, they ate a total of just five meals in the 14 days they were here, one of those consisting of two slices of tomato and a half cup of shredded lettuce. These girls subsist mainly on a diet of nutrition and vitamin pills."

No sport is immune from doping, although some, such as canoeing and figure skating, have very little history of drug use.

Football players, because they need size, strength, stamina and the desire to hit people, are tempted to use a number of drugs.

Former pro defensive back Bernie Parrish wrote of the day he and a college teammate discovered amphetamines, and of football's drug mentality, in his 1972 book, "They Call It a Game."

"We were wild-eyed and rowdy. . . The players and coaches were wondering what in the hell had got into us . . . Doctors say that (amphetamines) do not have any real effect on one's performance, but we were convinced they were great. I never played another game in my college or professional career without taking either Dexedrine or Benzedrine. The last season of my pro career with Cleveland . . . prior to the game I'd gulp down 70 milligrams of Dexedrine, eight ounces of glucose, and probably get a shot of Novocaine somewhere in my body. After the game . . . Orenzymes to hold down the swelling in any pulled muscle or bad bruises."

Anabolic steroids are used most extensively by weightlifters, football players, bodybuilders and competitors in the throwing events (shot put, discus, javelin, hammer), but they have also been used by decathletes, swimmers, pole vaulters, cyclists, high jumpers, boxers and wrestlers.

Stimulants have been used in virtually every sport that requires quick bursts of energy, and acceleration despite excruciating fatigue.

Boxing would seem to be a sport conducive to drug abuse, but doping is not frequent in it simply because fighters have not found any chemical aids that they think work-Leon Spinks' celebrated "little brown bottle" notwithstanding. (Informed observers suspect the potion given to Spinks by his corner the night he beat Muhammad Ali for the world heavy-weight title was nothing more than ammonia, water and flavoring.)

Not that boxers haven't tried to find performance-enhancing drugs. "I've seen fighters fill up a container with sugar and water and drink that before a bout. I've seen them smoke marijuana cigarettes before going in the ring. I've seen them try amphetamines and just about anything you can imagine," said Dr. Ferdi Pacheco of Miami, who has attended boxers ranging from club and prelim men to nine world champions (including Ali) over the past 15 years.

"The guy with the glucose solution just threw up in the toilet before the fight. The pot-smoker went in the ring and had the crap beaten out of him with a beatific smile on his face. The guys on uppers burn them all out of their system within three rounds, and are on the down side of the slope, tired and looking at a guy who is ready to go 10 rounds more.

"There is just no drug you can give a fighter that is going to help him if he hasn't done his training, his roadwork, eaten right and slept right."

Swimmers have been known to try to expand their bronchial tubes and the air-bearing capacity of their lungs by taking antihistamines and drugs known to enlarge the contracted bronchioles of asthma sufferers. Physiologists doubt that such expansion is possible, but ephedrine-a chemical similar in structure to adrenalin that is an ingredient in many nasal sprays and antiasthmatics-does act as a stimulant accelerating the pulse rate. Many swimmers use it.

Distance runners traditionally have shown remarkably little inclination to experiment with stimulants-unlike cyclists and cross-country skiers-but the use of caffeine by some of the millions of recent converts to running is a problem.

"Recent research indicated that 330 milligrams of caffeine improved the performance of bikers about 15 percent. People read that, figure out that 330 milligrams is about three No-Doz tablets, and they put that in their gym bags along with their Vaseline and extra pair of socks," said Dr. Thomas Bassler, a California pathologist active in the American Medical Joggers Association.

"Before long, someone is going to die by taking caffeine during a race, I'm sure of that. I took a poll recently to find out if this is common practice, and it is, even among doctors who run. But caffeine can cause heart arrhythmias (irregular beats), and the hotter and more dehydrated you are, the more vulnerable your heart is to rhythm disturbances."

One woman track coach recently called Olympic House in Colorado Springs to ask what she could do about someone who was persuading her runners that the best way to prepare for competition was to take a sedative the evening before to assure a good night's sleep, and then to take cocaine "to get perked up and euphoric" before the race.

"Cocaine used to be regarded strictly as a 'recreational' drug, but I believe that it is much more than that now to some professional football players," said Dr. Thomas, "It is a stimulant and, in the case of football, it would also enable a player to withstand pain of impact he couldn't tolerate without it, so he could go ahead and hit harder without feeling it.

"It is very expensive, of course, but use of cocaine in sports is a problem the pro leagues are aware of."

On a few frightening occasions, athletes have tried injecting themselves with adrenalin in attempts to stimulate better performance. A powerlifter once did so at a meet in Texas and collapsed on stage in full view of a capacity audience. He was revived by his wife who, according to witnesses, ran on stage and gave him another injection, presumably to lower his racing pulse rate before his heart burst.

Adrenalin (also known as epinephrine) or synthetic approximations are occasionally used in minute quantities as an emergency measure in near-fatal asthma or allergic attacks. It helps regulate the heartbeat and the tension of blood vessels among other functions, but is extremely dangerous in amounts greater than those produced naturally by the body.

Stimulants accelerate the heartbeat. Some athletes take tranquilizing or antihypertensive drugs to slow down the heartbeat.

Perhaps most commonly used in this regard are Valium (diazepam), Librium (chloridizepoxide) and the anti-hypertensive Raudixin (the powdered root of the Rauwolfia Serpentina bush). Shooters and archers have taken these to keep their hands and nerves steady, and golfers have used them to reduce the anxiety of their cerebral game.

There have been reports of ski jumpers using Inderal (propanolol), a potent cardiovascular preparation that blocks the stimuli that accelerate heart action. It is used to reduce rapid heartbeat and palpitations in acute coronary patients. It has also been used by stage performers to control the rapid heartbeat associated with stage fright, and apparently by ski jumpers in the same way. But it is a dangerous drug with serious possible side effects, particularly in overdose. It can promote shortness of wind and constriction of the bronchial tubes.

"People ask me, 'Why would an athlete take such chances? Why would almost every Olympic weight man chance it with steroids?'" said Navy track coach Al Cantello, an Olympic javelin thrower in 1960.

"I have to laugh. Any layman, and almost anyone over 40, is incapable of understanding the mammoth significance of all this to the young people involved.

"In track, there is no team, no luck, no variables. It's almost purely individual. You're completely 'into' perfecting your body.

"At this point, it is the most important thing in their lives, and they hear that if they don't use steroids, they have no chance . . . no chance whatsoever . . . and that everyone else, all their macho peers, are doing it . . . then they can rationalize anything to themselves.

"They hear all the horror stories, but they ignore them.

"In the real 'body' sports, like track, weightlifting and football, these kids are like addicts. They'll break down doors to get in and work out. It's a natural high, but it's as addictive as any drug. And they believe that steroids are essential to success.

"The whole process is something like a curse," Cantello continued. "You're searching for what one Russian called "The White Moment' . . . the peak when it all comes together.

"And the desire for that won't leave you as you grow older. Just because you once threw the javelin in the Olympics, like I did, you spend the rest of your life like a leaf in the wind-coaching, going from this to that-trying to recreate that White Moment, the one time when you were perfect."

Many American track athletes and coaches think that their East European rivals, particularly the East Germans who do massive sportsmedicine studies at the famed Leipzig Institute, have a better system for handling drug use in sports than do Americans. Better to do research on drugs and use them in training programs monitored by doctors, they say, than to ban substances and then look the other way as athletes grope around, self-doping themselves without benefit of education.

"The East Germans know how to monitor the drug use of their athletes and get the most out of what they do. They also seem to know how to avoid the major bad side effects," said Gideon Ariel of the University of Massachusetts, an internationally respected authority on biomechanics.

"We should never advocate the use of steroids, but until a time comes when we find a way to eliminate steroid use, then the Communist countries have a better system-in practical terms-for protecting their athletes."

Dr. Hanley is a hard-liner on the subject who insists that that there is really no drug that improves performance any more than the hooves of an Abyssinian ass, including the widely used anabolic steroids.

"I think they may make some individuals more aggressive so that they practice a little harder, but anabolics per se do not improve performance," said Hanley. "There's nothing I know of that does."

Athletes disagree.

"That guy Hanley doesn't know what he's talking about. He's a charlatan, and I've told him that to his face," said hammer thrower George Frenn, an Olympian in 1972. "He says steroids don't work, but that's just bull.

"When you get into trouble with them is when you start taking the incredible amounts some guys do. That's bad. But they do work.

"Hanley says, 'Oh well, it's only psychological'," Frenn went on. "I don't care what he says. If the bottle says Dianabol, and the pill comes out blue, and a guy takes three or four of them a day for 25 days and all of sudden gets about a 30 percent increase over his previous best performance, I don't care what anybody says. The work.

"Athletes need guidance. What amounts are most effective, and safe? What should you do if you start to get bad side effects? But instead of answers, all they get are scare tactics and red herrings. There is so much ignorance, it's pathetic."

Dr. Hanley does not agree with Frenn's approach to the drug problem, but he does not dispute Frenn's assessment of the situation.

"The problem of drug use in sports is worse than it's ever been-not only Olympic sports, but athletics in general. There is increasing use of all sorts of medications by athletes in attempts to improve their performance. In strength sports, the use of steroids has become pretty widespread down into the high schools now," he said.

"Way back, I think it was Sir William Osler who said one of the characteristics that distinguishes man from other animals in his desire to take pills, and we sure are in a pill-taking culture now.

"You just have to watch TV one evening to see that. Commercials for this medication and that medication come on one after another. Mama's loused up the day's housework and Daddy's coming home, so she takes (something) and suddenly the palm trees are swaying, violins are playing softly, everything is lovely.

"And athletes, for some reason, seem to be among the most gullible. The desire and pressure to win are great. These kids work pretty hard, some of them for 10 and 12 years, to excel in international competition.

"During that time, they pick up all sorts of myths, and they really believe there are things that can help their performance. They ask me, 'Do you believe in steroids? It's a religion with them. A pharmacological credo." CAPTION: Illustrations l and 2, no caption, by David Seavey for The Washington Post