IN 1976, WHEN Jimmy Carnes was coach of the Florida Track Club, two of his outstanding runners, Steve Williams and Marty Liquori, were deprived of Olympic berths because of injuries. Carnes vowed there had to be a more satisfying method of choosing the team than all-or-nothing trials in which injuries play such a key factor.
Now Carnes is coach of the U.S. men's track team for the Moscow Olympics, but he forced to admit there is no other equitable means of choosing a team. So once again the Olympic Trials will be final.
"At that time I said there had to be a better way," Carnes said. "I can't find a better way. Even if you had three meets, you would still have to have a selection process and when a committee gets involved in choosing the team, you're in for trouble.
"I'm carrying a little wishbone and hoping nobody gets hurt and we get our best athletes at Moscow."
Even if America's best qualify for the trip to the Soviet Union, there is no guarantee of success. Track and field is showing so much progress in the rest of the world that only in the hurdles and relays can the U.S. expect to continue its domination.
On the basis of recent performance only three Americans are favorites for gold medals - Maryland's Renaldo Nehemiah in the high hurdles, defending champion Edwin Moses in the intermediate hurdles and Clancy Edwards in the 200 meters. Adding the two relays, that would be five golds, one fewer than at Montreal and an all-time low.
If the U.S. fails to win a gold in the field events, a not unlikely prospect, it would be the first such shut-out since the Olympics were reborn in 1896.
The American women managed only two silvers and a bronze at Montreal. The prediction for Moscow is two silvers, although both Kate Schmidt, in the javelin, and Jane Frederick, in the pentathlon, are capable of first-place finishes.
There is concern about housing, travel, food and general well-being in Moscow. The Soviets have resorted to gamesmanship before, relative to dual track meets against the U.S., and it is hard to imagine everything running like clockwork this time. The coaches, however, are not concerned so much with arrangements in the Soviet Union as with the athletes' preoccupation with same.
"One important area is in psychological preparation," said Ken Foreman, the women's head coach. "At our camps, we have worked on such areas as relaxation, stress management, stress reduction. It's going to be a whole different psychological ball game and we have to get our athletes ready for that."
"In my talks with the athletes, the majority have a tremendous attitude," Carnes said. "They now have the feeling that someone is doing something to help the athletes, not just exploiting them. I think we're a long way from an ideal situation - my dream is to give every world-class athlete an allotment for his training - but there has been considerable progress."
Moses literally came from nowhere in 1976 to win the Olympic gold medal and Carnes is hoping there are others who can show sufficent gains in performance to raise the figures projected here of five golds, six silvers and four bronze medals for the American men.
Eastern European women do not need friendly turf to dominate the competition. At Montreal, they won 13 of the 14 women's track and field events, with only Annegret Richter of West Germany, in the 100 meters, breaking the grip.
This time it should be a 14-event sweep of the gold, with 10 silvers and 12 bronze medals thrown in.
On the men's side, Communist countries figure to win half of the 24 events, with Cuba contributing three golds to the cause. The big area of Iron Curtain domination is the traditional U.S. stronghold in the field events. East Europeans are favored in seven of eight and it would be no big upset if they added the triple jump and scored a sweep.
Alberto Juantorena of Cuba must be conceded a good chance for another 400-800 double. His third-place 400 in Los Angeles in early May can be attributed to the stage of his training, not to any loss of ability.
Another potential double gold medalist is Henry Rono of Kenya, who holds the world records in the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and steeple-chase. He might even try to win all three, although such a feat seems impossible against this caliber of competition.
The Africans, missed at Montreal, will be difficult to beat in the distance events, although it seems that the 1,500-confrontation of Filbert Bayi and John Walker, the unfulfilled focal point of 1976, now is coming too late to accomplish what it once promised.
Marita Koch of East Germany has the ability to sweep the 200- and 400-meter races on the women's side, and she could add another gold in either relay.
The marathon should be one of the more competitive events, with perenial Boston winner Bill Rodgers facing the Soviet Union's Leonid Moseyev, No. 1 in the world last year, and defending champion Waldemar Gierpinski of East Germany.
The discus brings back buddies Mac Wilkins and Wolfgang Schmidt, 1-2 at Montreal, with Schmidt slightly favored this time. Soviet Aleksandr Klimyenko cannot be discounted on his home turf and there is a good chance four-time gold medalist Al Oerter will be back for one more try.
The decathlon, long an American high spot, seems destined to be the battling ground of others, with Guido Kratschmer of West Germany a serious threat to Bruce Jenner's world record.
In the metric mile for men, Walker and Bayi must make monumental comebacks merely to reach medal contention. The big three right now are Steve Ovett, Eamonn Coghlan and Thomas Wessinghage, with Briton Dave Moorcroft, Kenyan Wilson Waigwa and American Steve Scott likely finalists.
On the women's side, the U.S. trials present at torrid trio in Jan Merrill, Francie Larrieu and Mary Decker. It's the American entry over, but the East Europeans seem to run faster every week and Tatyana Kazankina, the double gold medalist of 1976, will be fortunate to annex one bronze in 1980.
Besides Nehemiah, likely Olympians from the Washington area include George Malley, the steeplechaser from Glenn Dale, Md., and Paula Girven, the Maryland high jumper from Woodbridge, Va. Given good chances are decathlete Al Hamlin, a 1975 Maryland graduate, and sprinter Liz Young of the University of D.C.