The words "Olympic boycott" have struck American athletes doubly hard because so many have relentlessly driven themselves to the edge for years.

Humans cannot run seconds faster, nor jump inches higher, nor flip and twist more times in midair without a cause, and without a cost.

In more and more sports, the price of excellence rises higher and higher each year.

The 1960s may be remembered as the decade when drugs hit the world of international athletics and transformed it. The use of steriods, amphetamines, painkillers and dozens of other drugs have been a risky, and voluminously documented trend for years.

The 1970s may become known as the decade when the world learned that children could be programmed to become champions, and that gripping, mind-bending psychological tactics could be applied to games.

"We are seeing a new phenomenon in the history of the world -- children who are being raised from the infancy for the purpose of being world champions," says Dr. Lyle Micheli, director for five years of the Sports Medicine Clinic at Boston's Children's Hospital.

"In various Olympic sports we are seeing a near-epidemic of psychological and physical problems that were uncommon until the last few years.

"In youn girl gymnasts and figure skaters, I have seen cases of anorexia nervosa -- voluntary suicide by starvation that strikes teen-age females, especially those who have been on crash diets for long periods of time.

"Right now, I am treating 14 child patients who have Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy," Dr. Micheli says. "That means that these kids broke an arm or a leg while playing sports. But, rather than get well like normal children, the psychological stresses in them are so strong that they are now suffering from psychosomatic paralysis of those limbs.

"In psychlogical terms, they have somaticized a serious emotional problem, presumably brought on by crushing adult demands that they become great athletes. They, subconsciously, would rather be paralyzed than get well.

"Our most common problem, however, is serious and potentially lasting bone damage due to recurrent microtrauma. Spondylolysis -- a serious stress fracture of the backbone that may cause problems your entire life -- has been showing up in young gymnasts.

"In young runners, we're seeing stress fractures and stunted growth from the constant pounding.

"Here in Boston, no one is allowed in the Boston marathon unless they are 16 years old," says, Dr. Micheli, a runner. "But I went to Honolulu to a marathon and the officials said they were really going to put their foot down on kid runners.

"They said they wouldn't allow any child to run the 26 miles unless they were at least six years old."

"We have no idea what damage running 26 miles can do to a child. Bones grow from sheets of cartilage on both ends of the bone. Running puts six to eight times your body weight on your bones.

"Long distance running just has to pound on those sheets of cartilage, which are weak to start with."

Just as worrisome as anorexia nervosa, spondylolysis or reflex sympathetic dystrophy are the unchartable and unmeasurable damages to child's embryonic personality.

"We consistently find a high anxiety levels and problems with self-serious athletes," Dr. Mitcheli says. "Clearly, many of them are encouraged to think of themselves as athletes who happen to be people, not people who happen to be athletes.

"Throughout history, children have always played in society. But it has always been a way to work out frustrations, and even a way to escape from the adult work.

"Now, for the first time, we see adults injecting themselves massively into that world of play and making it the most competitive and adult situation imaginable.

"We have started to see the damage from a generation of athletes who have used drugs. We'll have to wait until 2001 to see what damage we're doing now."

Americans are mere followers in the massive project to unearth athletic talent in the bassinet, or, at the latest, by the time a child reaches elementary school.

Russia, East Germany and Cuba have been the pacesetters. In scientific experimentation, the East Germans are the best -- or worst. Yet in applying athletic techniques to children, Cuba has been the most disproportionately successful nation in producing athletes, finishing sixth in the 1976 Olympics despite a population of only 9 million.

Close to home, just 90 miles from Florida we find the model sports academies of Cuba, built along East German and Russian master plans, but run with Latin enthusiasm, and revolutionary ardor.

"Sports is the right of the people," is Fideal Castro's consistent pronouncement. But sports is also an arm of international propaganda and a source of national morale. Cuban children are put in water at 8 months of age to show them the first movements of swimming.

"We can tell what sport a child is suited for at 9 years of age," says Manuel Gonzales, director of the Cuban Olympic Committee.

Cuba's model sports school outside Havana has 2,000 live-in students from age 8 to 18 with 169 trainers and 70 academic tutors. Cuba is well on its way to establishing a 6,000-student academy of sports in each of its 14 provinces. That's more than 80,000 semiprofessional child athletes in a nation of 9 million people.

"When we look at our children, we are searching for diamonds," Gonzales says. "Everychild and every adult has a right to participate in athletics. And every diamond has a right to be discovered and polished."

At the World Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth last month, the finishers included a Russian, an East German and a Romanian. They were 18, 19 and 20 years old and weight, respectively, 55, 60, 65 pounds.

The world champion Romanian women, during their two weeks in the U.S., were given a total of seven meals. One of the feasts was a small green salad. When fat falls below three percent of body weight, growth hormones stop being produced. Romanian gymnasts seldom outgrow their sport.

Tracee Talavera left home two years ago on her 11th birthday to live year-round at a gymnastics school in Eugene, Ore. Now, though her parents pleaded wth her, she won't come home.

The father of America's best young woman gymnast is one of those who has declared a kind of war on the creators of the "new" athletes.

"She's a gymnastics addict," says her father Rip Talvera."She can't get off it. We can't talk her into coming home."

Talavera sees her parents, who live in Walnut Creek Calif., about four times a year, usually for no more than two days at a time. On weekends, she practices from 6 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. before going to junior high school -- for two hours a day.

Perphaps the most prevalent fear among the American amateur athletic community is that, as the ancient folk wisdom says, we will come to resemble those that we consider our adversaries.

However, one strong dissenting opinion makes a sharp and interesting contrast.

"There is no essential difference between sports in Russia and sports in America," says Brooks Johnson, the Standford track coach. "The cost, the worth, the damages, the advantages -- they just about weigh each other out. Ours isn't good and theirs bad.

"Sports exists at the leisure and pleasure of the society at large. And sports never rises above that society It always mirrors it. Games don't teach character; they reflect it.

"Russia subsidizes its athletes. But what do we call our college scholarships? Perhaps they don't come from the government, but they're built into our society. So, in the end, both countries have huge numbers of semiproathletes.

"We say our kids have a choice about what they'll play, or if they'll play. But do they?

"Our poor kids play ball because they see it as a way out. In midwinter in D.C. I've seen black kids, with gloves on, playing basketball under a street lamp," says Johnson, who ran the Risk (Head Start-like) program at St. Albans.

"In the large middle class, we get athletes because social pressures funnel them that way.My old contracts professor in law school said, 'Forget the verbiage. Follow the dollar. Who gets what for what?

"In the South, you follow the dollar and you find football. It's like a religion. I've gone into high schools to recruit and seen weight rooms with carpet, when the principal's office floor was bare.

"If a Russian came here and saw a typical product of our major college football -- a 21-year-old player who in his career has had one knee operaton, two or three concussions, a gnarled finger, two or three broken bones, and bruises all over his body -- he'd say, 'These Americans are obsessed.'

"Which society is more inhumane to its athletes?" Johnson asks. "The communist coaches take courses in biomechanics, physiology and physics. They use every kind of drug and new technique, but at least they attempt to know what they're doing.

"We expose our children to idiot coaches with a total lack of proper knowledge -- volunteer fathers who think they are Vince Lombardi.

"The Russians develop their athletes with ruthlessness. But you have a kind of ruthlessnes here, too. It's called 'win or get fired.' And it produces the same result."

Despite the dross of year-round gymnastic acdemies where a 10-year-old can pay $12,000 annual tuition, or the world of youth swimmers where a family can spend $4,000 a year on its 12-year-old Spitz, many former Olypians feel that the differences between American and communist sports systems are significant and worth retaining.

"My fear is that we will lose the thing that has made American sports great -- individuality," says Carl Robie, a Sarasota, Fla., lawyer who won a swimming gold medal at the '68 Olypics.

"We're so intent on proving which potitical philosophy is better suited to mass-producing athletes that we forget the basic values of competition. The Olympics is for losing, too. I know.

"In '64, I was a world beater. I had bettered the existing Olympic record in the 400-meter IM by 13 seconds. I was almost as overwhelming a favorite as Spitz was in '72.

"And I choked.

"I had been above the rest of the world so long, and by so much, that I hadn't learned to be a competitor. I was just a mechanical superstar. The pressure jumped up and got me. I didn't even get a medal in an event in which I'd held the world record for three years," Robie says.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me. They say an athlete dies twice. And it's true that a certain amount of your identity dies when you retire. Even though I figured my Olympic chance was shot, I went on to college (Michigan) and swam for the fun of it and to help the team. I just wasn't ready to die as a swimmer.

"I was an All-America 26 times at Michigan, but I didn't set any more world records. I swam any race, any distance . . . Sometimes three races in a row. I think I was subconsciously putting myself in spots where I had to win on guts, rather than talent.

"The summer of the '68 Olympics, Frank Keefe called me and suggested I try for the Olympics again -- not because I had the best times, but because I had the best times, but because I had experience in swimming at high altitudes."

In the Olympic trials, Robie, now called the "Iron Man," beat the young Spitz in the 400 IM. "He crumbled just like I had. He needed to fall apart once, just like I had."

At Mexico City, a mile high strange things happened. Guts were at a premium. "I watched Don McKenzie drink a quart of tequila the night before, then go out and win the 100-meter butterfly, " Robie says. "He was the only guy in the race who didn't have Montezuma's revenge. He'd never tasted the water."

Robie, considered a swimming relic, won, too. "I'd learned how to roll with the punches, rather than rule the world," he says.

Robie wonders, however, if performances such as his and McKenzie's aren't becoming extinct, casualties of fierce progress.

"Swimming has so many robots, so many guys who seem to train every minute that they're awake," Robie says. "It seems less human. You lose the clutch performance. Technique and dedication and methodology have taken their place.

"But should they be everything?"

Soon, many American athletes may face a disappointment of the same dimensions as Robie's in '64. Will they die as athletes, disgusted at the though of half a young lifetime wasted in preparation for a day, a gun shot at the starting line, which never came?

Or will they learn, as Robie did, that sports, at its best, is not for world records and gold medals, but for self-education?

"I swam as one of those little tin-jock gods. And later, I swam as a man who was competing against his own self-limitations," Robie says. "I saw how you can start to believe all that stuff about yourself being so wonderful, how you stop giving and taking with people, and just take."

Have his Olympic fantasies smashed, as so many others may soon have theirs dashed, taught him a lesson.

Where is that precious gold medal now?

"I leave it at my mother's home," Robie says. "I don't want my son to have to grow up looking at it."