Edge.

It is the one word that winds through these Winter Olympics like an unseen slalom trail, connecting most of the athletes with most of the events. It grabs the mind, for it also ties the wonderment of sport with the terror.

All althletes are trying desperately this fortnight to gain some sort of edge, however infinitesimal. Mostly, they are trying to ride that laser-thin edge between being daring and being reckless, or to muster maximum grace under maximum pressure.

Edge tugs hard on Dr. A. H. Beckett in a special way. His work -- and it seems indeed Olympian at times -- is to judge how this edge is achieved. How much courage is artificial? How much relaxation with much of the world watching came from a pill?

Beckett and the rest of the International Olympic Committee Medical Commission try to determine who cheats. They do it by making most medal winners urinate after their competition -- and, yet, these Olympics do have an official specimen bottle, awarded to a firm in Albany.

A professor at the University of London, Beckett was on hand when it became clear that an Olympic Doping Center could no longer be avoided. That was in 1960, during the Rome Games, when one Danish cyclist died because of drug misuse and two others were hospitalized.

Each Olympiad, Beckett and his colleagues have become bolder and more sophisticated. But he suspects they still are behind in their race with doctors intent on finding ways to mask drugs that send their athletes toward the Olympic ideal of higher, swifter, stronger.

"A warfare," he called it. "And it's ruthless."

Can it be won?

"No. We can only prevent the more serious aspects of the problem. We win some; we lose some. The war goes on."

Moments before, in his room in the elegantly elderly Lake Placid Resort Hotel, where nearly everything Olympic is determined, Beckett had said: "Lord Killanin (president of the IOC) has said that the biggest danger to the Olympics is not this silly politics but misuse of drugs."

Beckett has seen it all, in fact plans a book detailing the history and histrionics of his present passion, the times he has been offered to name his price to alter a retest. He is frightened most by anabolic steroids -- and atheletes will be tested for them here for the first time in the Winter Olympics.

Do they work?

"Yes. I'd like to say no. But I'm a realist. Sure they help. A primary candidate is ice hockey. I doubt if anyone's tested that sport before. Steroids scare me, for what they can do over the long term. And for what they can do to women. It really is frightening.

"But not all the blame should be put on the athletes. It goes much further up. The people behind them should be kicked out -- and they really go pretty high.

"There is a fine line between potential danger and normal medication. The competition should be between individual athletes, not doctors and pharmachologists. We don't want sports people used as guinea pigs to boost the doctors behind them."

Doping central occupies the basement of a Saranace Lake landmark, a hotel that once was a tuberculosis hospital. The cure was discovered there, by the great-grandfather of Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. Christy Mathewson died at the hospital.

Now the Olympians who cross the finish line first, leap highest and most artistically and beat upon each other with sticks will not be Olympic winners until they have passed through doping control.

Before they compete, the women will have passed through Femininity Control at the Olymic Village, either presenting a piece of paper that essentially states: "I am woman" or undergoing an uncomplicated sex test.

That has been Olympic proecedure since the '68 Games in Grenoble. As of late today, about 120 women had been certified as what one assumed was obvious.

"Sometimes a female will look quite masculine," said Dr. Daniel Perl, also director of the cytogenetics lab and associate professor of pathology at the University of Vermont. "But they really are women. It gets back to the whole question of anabolic steroids.

"Which means it's more a doping problem."

Every Olympics produces its small share of athletes who fail to pass Beckett's standards. The checks -- and not all the winter sports federations allow them -- cost about $1 million. There are tests of the testing procedures, aides who have taken banned drugs offering sample that will be quietly mixed among the anonymous bottles from the athletes.

The procedure has moved Dr. Anthony Daley, chief physician of the United States team, to insist: "The old saying was the lab could tell you what kind of lettuce you ate for lunch two days before. Now, I think, they could tell you how old the lettuce was. The tests are that sensitive."

Beckett remains suspicious. When he first became involved in drug testing, Spanish cyclists were told to wet theird pants immediately after a race, but tests were devised to detect the drugs during a second sample.

Also, some athletes would complete with urine samples in small bottles hidden under their armpits. The athletes would slip them to officials instead of the postrace sample. Now somebody watches the sample being offered.

In addition to steroids, Beckett suspects that something called betablocking agents might be being used by athletes in the more dangerous winter sports, because they actually reduce the fear of flying.

They provide a mellow feeling that still allows the athletes to keep his senses while striving for higher and longer distance than his natural courage would permit.

"One of the troubles," Heckett said, "is that there are no totally universal controls. For instance, the United Kingdom and Denmark are quite strict. We test all the time. None of our athletes could get away with anything.

"But the Soviets will pull their teams out of a competition with testing. And some Americans won't show up, either. So our people can't make some of the qualifying standards athletes on steroids -- who aren't being checked at the time -- can.

"I'm concerned about the contrived meeting of Olympic qualifying standards, chemically doped standards."

He detests the National Football League's failure to test its players.

"Why have they done nothing?" he asks. "Because it would wipe out a lot of their top people. Financial aspects control it."

What if there were two Olympics, one for those athletes and those countries who justify drugs and another for those who stayed pure?

"Maybe," Beckett said, smiling slying, "you wouldn't have enough for the straight Olympics."