As certainly as it is right for American athletes to stay out of Moscow this summer, so is it right for Americans to say thanks to them. The farmers will get their grain money, and the computers will be sold somewhere, but an athlete's dream comes without a selling price. If Jimmy Carter asks that those dreams be given up, he should be ready to say thanks.

Strike a medal, Mr. President.

Set a table for 550 guests.

And on July 19, when the Olympics begin in Moscow, the president should have as his dinner guests, with medals for each, the 550 American athletes who, by their performances in trials this summer, would have earned spots on the U.S. Olympic team. This is a team without Games; it need not be a team without honor.

A strong voice was heard on Capitol Hill yesterday. All the hurt, dispirited athletes should have heard it. Four times a gold medal winner, now 42 years old but in training for a fifth Olympics 12 years after he "retired," Al Oerter told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "It is time for the athletes to put aside their personal feelings . . . If we show unity, it would bode well for the athletic community and for the United States Olympic Committee."

Inevitably, the athlete's feelings have been disappointment and anger that so precious a dream has been denied them, denied, in their eyes, unfairly. Theirs is an insulated life. How they're doing in life is not measured in their grasp of diplomacy; it is measured in tenths of seconds and in quarters of an inch. They chase their dream until some one better beats them to it. They don't mind losing to someone better, but to lose by proclamation, to lose because idiots roll tanks across a border, to lose that way is maddening.

And they cry out. Anita DeFrantz did. She's a rower who has been training for six years with Moscow her dream. She came before the Foreign Relations Committee and said in an athlete's mind Moscow is not a city, it is just a place, no different from Montreal or Minneapolis. Moscow is just a place. "Inconsequential," is the adjective she used for the city that sent the tanks rolling.

"Three weeks ago," the rower told the senators, "my life was by most estimations unremarkable. No one other than my rowing partner was particularly interested in how I utilized my free time.

"Suddenly, my desire to compete in the Olympic Games, which is unquestionably the primary motivation to train, became an unpatriotic act. I was stunned, shocked and, quite frankly, I felt betrayed."

The chairman of the senate committee, Frank Church (D-Idaho) said he had received a letter from an athlete who declared he would use $1,900 of his own money to go to Moscow, whether or not the president, Congress or the majority of Americans wanted him to. The dream is powerful. "What is a gold metal worth?" asked Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), who two weeks ago introduced a resolution supporting President Carter's call for a boycott.

What is a gold medal worth? It's worth fame, which can be translated into money, as done by Bruce Jenner and Mark Spitz and Johnny Weismuller, Sonja Henie, who walked at Hitler's side during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, is said to have made $47 million after the Games made her an international star.

Kurt Thomas today would use the Olympics to get rich. Cosmetic surgery on Linda Fratianne's nose was not done to help her skate better. If Bill Rodgers is moaning over Moscow, it's not that he needs to win another marathon, it's just that an Olympic champion sells a whole lot more running shoes than the winner at Caribou, Maine.

But what the Olympics are, and what a gold medal is truly worth, are the dreams of anonymous towers who will never get rich and 42-year-old discus throwers for whom sport is a nice part of life but hardly the whole thing. These are the people the Olympic movement created, these are people Americans should thank.

Not that Al Oerter needs thanks. He's okay. He had been out of the discus-throwing business for eight years after winning at Mexico City, eight years after throwing the discus 212 feet 6 inches, his best up till then. Oerter quit to be with his daughters, then 8 and 10, and when they grew into young women, he went back to training.

Not to get rich.

Because he liked it.

His weight, once down to 230, came back to 280. Oerter became stronger than ever, able to life 525 pounds when, in 1968, he stopped at 450. A month ago he threw the discus 221 feet, about five feet shorter than the distance he figured he'd need to make the Olympic team.

An astonishing comeback.

"Not really," Oerter said. "Once I got a year into it, it was just a matter of breaking mental buriers. 'I can't lift this much,' 'I can't run that far,' 'I can't throw that far,' 'Age is catching up with me.' That's all nonsense.

"I'm stronger, faster and better than I ever was, I work with more purpose. We've even done computer analyses of what I'm doing throwing the discus. It's frame-by-frame examination of film with measurements of trajectories, moments of force, acceleration and deceleration. And when you know what you should be doing, you can look at those things -- I'm decelerating when I should be accelerating for example -- and correct them."

Before work every day, Oerter rides a stationary bicycle. At lunchtime, he throws. At night, he lifts weights. It has been done at a cost in pain. "I've had trouble with everything," he said. "It's a process of finding weak links and then repairing them."

There was disappointment when he heard Carter's suggestion of a boycott. Oerter first wanted to go to Moscow and beat the Russians face to face, but now he accepts the idea that the athlete's can do a greater good by staying away.

"Some of the athletes felt cheated, and I would, too, if I had invested 24 hours a day seven days a week for three years, 100 percent, toward making the Olympics.

"But throwing the discus is only one of the things I do in life. The athletes complaining out of Colorado Springs, that's just a group mentality of athletes who have lived together constantly. You put them back in their hometowns with normal Americans, their attitudes would change."