If sport is life's dessert, the Winter Olympics is chocolate mousse, rich beyond ouur usual tastes but almost worth the expense now and then.

Every four years is about right.

The Winter Games is best approached as adventure into unfamiliar -- if glittering -- athletic terrain, America indulging the rest of the world's pleasure for a change. Or the frosty part, at least, for a major reason for most athletes being here is a happy accident of birth.

Children of Miami and Morocco might be awed by these sleek, helmeted crazies hellbent down a mountain on skis; their inspiration is brief, however, because they cannot slip immediately from in front of the television and begin imitating the glorious moves just seen.

We understand the Games of Summer, the basic games, the jumpers and runners, wrestlers and boxers, swimmers and rowers. But the winter events are foreign to nearly everyone south of the Tropic of Cancer, although much of what is happening in Afghanistan seems to be serious biathlon.

Why do we care about the Winter Games?

In truth, we don't. We have even less affection for them than the Summer Games. A Mark Spitz or Bruce Jenner grabs our attention tightly enough to grab an Olympian amount of commercial money. A Bob Mathias can get elected to Congress.

The winter wonders dazzle us, but fade almost as quickly as they arrived -- even American champions Anne Henning and Peter Mueller. The one exception has been the women skaters who, cynics suggest, are trying out for pro ice shows with each axel and triple.

Why should we care about the Winter Games?

Possibly because the late Avery Brundage despised them. Anything that sporting curmudgeon was against couldn't be all that bad, could it? As head of the International Olympic Committee, he tried with a passion to end the Winter Games.

And they do emphasize much of what Brundage detested about sport, the commercialism, athletes gobbling up money under the table from ski-equipment manufacturers, the sites themselves basically using the Games to promote tourism.

An Austrian ski champion is said to make as much as $200,000 per year. An American might earn $80,000. These are the amateurs. There is something grossly hilarious about Annemarie Moser-Proell returning to amateur skiing, in large part, because she needed the money.

Even the snow is fake. Or a good deal of it here is so far. Mother Nature seems as sour as Brundage about these Games, determined to keep as much snow as possible from here as long as possible.

Olympic officials have skated around her. They have made enough artificial puff -- at $300 per hour 24 hours per day -- to put the proper white face on Whiteface Mountain, so there will be no unique events after all. The slalom will not be decided on roller skates.

Still, these Games are special if for no other reason than their diversity, their offering an alternative to the traditional American sporting diet, the reaffirmation that the athletic year does not begin with baseball in April and end with the Super Bowl in January.

It hardly hurts to become acquainted with luge and cross-country skiing, though even ABC will find it nearly impossible to forcefeed us wintry exercise the way it did gymnastics and long-distance running.

And we can generate infinitely more admiration for most of the wintry Olympians, the ones not on the take, especially the Americans with no professional future who work as urgently as building O. J.'s and Dr. J.'s.

What Eric Heiden seems about to complete is staggering by any standards. He is favored to win every men's speed skating event, all five, from 500 meters through 10,000 meters. Only an Olympic analogy allows us to give this proper perspective.

The hero of the '75 Summer Games was the Cuban Alberto Juantorena.El Caballo became nearly legendary for a uniqud double, winning both the 400- and 800-meter runs. He he also won the 200-meter dash and, say, the 5,000 meters he might reach Heiden's range of speed and endurance.

Heiden is not some Soviet recently emerged from a hidden lab after decades of selective breeding. He is American, from Green Bay Packer country, one of the many rare athletes we neglect, in fact make so difficult to succeed internationally.

Probably, he would be extraordinary at whatever sport he chose. Because he was raised near the site of until last year America's lone speed-skating rink and among others of similar interest and dedication, he bestrides a relatively obscure sport.

But then all of sport is relative. What is fabulous to the Finns won't play for the Aussies. Even the fashionable Winter Games sports, the high-speed skiing and skating, is easily buried in the American athletic pecking order.

Maybe the world will one day discover the Amish delight called cornerball -- and we will slog off toward the barnyards of middle Pennsylvania, pens and cameras in hand, with cables strewn through pastures and under animals, to celebrate a rather primitive sport.

The safest way to approach these Games is not to think too deeply about them, not to dwell on the fact that most of the competitors in this alleged tribute to amateurishly are not amateurs, that the best athletes in a few sports are not on hand because they accept their money openly.

Still, under that pile of television hype -- and very likely atop a natural-looking surface wroght by man's heavy hand -- will be found uncommon grace and strength, daring and discipline. For all their excesses and inequities, their vulnerability to the worst of humankind, the Games also are unavoidable.