THE OVERWHELMING applause President Carter received from both sides of the House when he said in his State of the Union address that the United States should boycott the Moscow Games signaled what might very well be the end of the Olympic Games as we know them.

Earlier that day the House Foreign Affairs Committee almost unanimously supported the president's position after hearing from Bob Kane, the president of the United States Olympic Committee.

At that point I felt very sad for Kane, one of the most honorable, dedicated and articulate men in all of sports, who had found himself in a "no-win" corner.

The unfortunate part of the Olympic mess is that Kane and Col. Don Miller, the USOC executive director, found themselves at the bottom of a steep hill trying to wave off an 80-mile-an-hour runaway truck.

For Kane and Col. Miller the downhill slide began Jan. 14 when our leaders missed a chance to capitallize on one of the most critical United Nations votes in a quarter of a century.

That afternoon 104 nations voted in favor of the United Nations resolution calling for "the immediate, unconditional and total withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan." "Foreign troops" in this case was synonym for the Soviet Union.

Newspapers headlined the vote as the most momentous political defeat for the Soviet Union since the U.N. condemnation of the Soviets when they moved into Hungary a few weeks before the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

The euphoria of these triumphant moments must have mesmerized our leaders. How could they not seize the opportunity to finally put some teeth into a decision of the United Nations General Assembly?

I watched the drama on television. Surely United Nations Ambassador Donald McHenry was going to ask for a caucus of the 104 nations who voted to censure the foreign invaders of Afghanistan. In my mind I even wrote the words for Ambassador McHenry:

"Ladies and gentlemen of this honored body, we have an opportunity never before afforded us to preserve peace in the world and keep alive one of the grat idealistic concepts . . . the Olympic Games. Our vote here means nothing. We cannot get the foreign troops out of Afghanistan.

"However, the United States government is going to suggest to the United States Olympic Committee under Article 17b of the International Olympic Committee charter that an extraordinary session of the IOC be convened according to the Olympic charter. Here are the facts.

"The International Olympic Committee was created by the Congress of Paris on June 23, 1894. It is a corporate body by international law having juridical status and perpetual succession.

"Under Article 23 entitled 'supreme authority' the IOC is the final authority on all questions concerning the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement. Only half the members plus one are necessary to form a quorum.

"The 104 affirmative votes of the nations that have just condemned the foreign invasion of Afghanistan constitutes more than three-quarters of the 133 national Olympic organizations that are part of the International Olympic committee.

"The United States calls upon each of these countries to use your good offices with your Olympic committees -- just as President Carter will shortly do with the United States Olympic Committee -- to urge these committees not to accept the invitation to be the summer Olympic guests of any country that does not heed the vote of censure of the United Nations General Assembly."

The scenario continues. Several United Nations representatives who have done their homework speak out, "But, Ambassador McHenry, under Article 24c entitled 'autonomy' the IOC charter states that national Olympic committees must be autonomous and must resist all pressures of any kind whatsoever whether of a political, religious or economic nature . . . they must never associate themselves with any undertaking that would be in conflict with the principles of the Olympic movement and with the rules of the IOC."

It is now McHenry's turn again. "You're right," says McHenry. "But your responses remind me of the story of the Hungarian politician who was urged by his friends to leave the country in 1956 when Soviet troops were on the outskirts of Budapest. Said the politician, 'I'm going to stay in Budapest till the Soviets get here and then I'll put my hat on and leave.' His friend replied, 'That's all well and good, but what are you going to put your hat on?'"

It has been said that great victories are gained by great chances, and for the Olympic movement to survive this great chance was unfortunately missed.

Certainly the IOC would have expressed its unhappiness in mixing politics and the Olympics and that all of the 104 nations were in violation of Article 24c. But Lord Killanin, president of the IOC, would have gotten the message.

It is reasonable to assume Lord Killanin would have taken the message to Moscow and told them, "Folks, we've got a problem here. Unless you move your troops out of Afghanistan, I'm afraid you're going to have to cook up another Spartakiad because you're going to have a lot of empty places at your Olympic opening ceremonies."

Incredibly, the only country that knew the score was the Soviet Union. Their reply to the furor was, "It is not a problem for the Soviet Union. It is not a problem for the United States. It is a problem for the International Olympic Committee." The Soviets were telling us how to save the Olympic Games and we blew it.

The simple facts of life are found in paragraph 4 of the Olympic charter. "The IOC governs the Olympic movement and owns the rights over the Olympic Games . . . every person or organization that plays any part whatsoever in the Olympic movement shall accept the supreme authority of the IOC and shall be bound by its rules and submit to its jurisdiction . . . The honor of holding the Olympic Games is entrusted to a city. The choice of any city shall lie solely with the IOC."

Of course the Soviet Union must remove its troops from Afghanistan. Of course the United States and the other countries of the world should not send an Olympic team to Moscow while troops are still roaming the Afghanistan countryside.

But with our unilateral pronouncement we have once again fallen into a big-power-versus-big-power confrontation, and the likelihood is that when summer rolls around the Soviets will still be in Afghanistan and the United States Olympic team won't be in Moscow.

It is still worth a good fight. The Olympic ideal is to sports as the constitution is to the United States and as the Magna Carta is to Great Britain.

Which of these magnificent institutions has reached its fullest potential? Which has been extinguished because it is imperfect? They have all survived not because of what is wrong with them but because of what is right.