Just as Europeans are mystified by a ground-rule double in the World Series or a fair-catch signal in the Super Bowl, so most Americans are dumbfounded by the Winter Olympic Games.

Basically, most American spectators here have next to no idea what they are watching, who is winning or why.

The subtleties of these snowy games -- in fact, the most basic fundamentals -- are a mystery.

Why is it almost impossible for a southpaw to be a great speed skater?

What does it mean for a Nordic skier to say that he is on a "seafood-and-root" diet?

Why do East Germans threaten to shatter the cameras of anyone caught photographing their luges?

How cold does it have to get before a biathlete has to change the bullets in his rifle so that the chill factor won't ruin his aim?

Which country has discovered a special cream used by astronauts that will keep ski visors from frosting?

Why are downhill racers more likely to get frost-bite on the chairlift up the mountain rather than on the 80-mile-per-hour ride down the hill?

Why have Olympic officials here been dynamiting huge mountains of snow? And why was a huge auditorium filled this week for a "press conference to discuss wax"?

What is an "anaerobic threshold" or "a lactic acid race?" What is the "rock" of a speed skate and why is it illegal to pour boiling oil into the hollow runners of a luge?

In many countries, these questions would be as easy to answer as it would be in asking an American kid to explain the pitcher's resin bag, or a football kicker's square-toed shoe.

However, when Beth Heiden, cover child of U.S. national magazines, finished a disappointing seventh in the women's 1,500-meter speed skating today, it was simply the first of many events here that will leave Americans scratching their heads while the rest of the world nods its head knowingly.

The Winter Olympics has sports in seven categories -- biathlon, bobsled and luge, ice hockey, Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, speed skating and figure skating. All have their intricacies, their tricks and strategies. And all those exotic qualities already have been on display.

Heiden's flop today was a perfect example, since it amazed a groaning and gasping crowd of 5,000, but was greeted as far from surprising by insiders.

All skaters race in pairs, speeding counterclockwise against the clock. The worst place to skate is first. You post your time, then everyone else knows what they have to beat. He who skates last, often skates best. Heiden skated first today. The unknown (here) Dutch farm girl who won skated last.

"As soon as you find out you've drawn the first pair, you groan," said Nancy Swider of the United States team. "Nobody knows the rink conditions yet You don't know what the ideal lap times are because you don't know yet what will constitute a winning time."

For instance, Heiden's time of 2.13.1 beat the Olympic record by more than three seconds. Everybody cheered.

That clocking merely alerted every other competitor that the track was fast and that a burning pace was essential. Heiden soon fell off the leader board.

Speed skaters worry about many things -- the "rock" (or degree of curvature) in theird skates, the sharpness of their blade edge, and the effect of freshly falling snow, such as the kind that covered the track today.

But more than that, speed skaters worry about two invisible things -- whether they have "peaked" properly in their training and whether they are psychologically fit to break through the pain barriers of their sport.

In these two areas, Beth Heiden had to face bitter evidence today that she may be in for a grim Olympics.

"The 1,500 meters for women is a lactic-acid race," said United States skater Tom Plant. "That means that you can feel the excess of lactic acid, caused by exhaustion, burning throughout your body. It's a distance that's too long to sprint and too short for a distance glide.

"It's a good measure of your state oftraining and of your tolerance for pain, 'cause it hurts the worst of all."

If speed skaters are bedeviled by factors like peaking and holding a psychological edge that seems to be just at the brink of what a human can control, then Nordic skiers are the athletes here who most fear that winning and losing are out of their control.

In the long Nordic cross-country races of 30 and 50 kilometers, perhaps the most crucial variable among the top contenders is not their muscle but the special mixture of wax on the bottoms of their skis.

This week, that wax gap has been truly crucial because, for the first time in history, a major world event is being held on artificial, manmade snow.

"The wax specialists are pulling out their hair," said United States cross-country racer Doug Peterson. "Nobody knows what to do. We have zillions of combinations of wax, but we have only a limited number of days to figure out what's best.

"We're all out there scrambling, and nobody's telling anybody anything. This manmade snow is faster, harder and more abrasive than natural.

"They piled the snow up in huge mounds to keep it from melting," said Peterson, "and they've had to blow it apart with dynamite. That's made the snow crystals so sharp and jagged that they abrade the wax severely."

No sport in the world burns as many calories per hour as cross-country skiing -- it's the No. 1 back-breaker. And, perhaps, no sport has so many subtle but serious, variables.

"A whole lot of things can, by themselves, ruin the day," said U.S. women's cross-country champ Alison Owens-Spencer, "but they all have to be right to make the day."

"There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes," said Peterson. "You want to wear the least you can, and still not get frostbitten. That's a touchy decision.

"Also, we all have a big problem with keeping our body weight up. When you ski 5,000 to 6,000 miles a year and burn 7,000 to 8,000 calories a day, you have to go on a seafood-and-root diet.

"That means," said Peterson, "if you see food, you eat it. And if you don't see it, you root it out."

The final cross-country ingredient is a sort of beatific peace of mind. "You need a sense of strength, peace and happiness," said Owens Spencer, "otherwise, you start to feel the hurt. And then, it's just torture."

"If you don't have a feeling of oneness with nature, your head just can't take this sport," said Peterson. "You either let the scenery and the winter inspire you, or it beats you down." "

Or, as Peter Hoag of the United States team put it, "You're part of your surroundings. I've chased deer and coyotes, and once I even picked up a rattlesnake."

If Nordic skiers are comtemplative, then Alpine skiers tend to be fanatic technicians. Not only wax, but every aerodynamic aspect of ski design and bindings is the stuff of heart's blood to them. They may be cannonballs careering down a mountain-side, but they are cannonballs that must utilize every scientific edge.

At the end of today's men's downhill, two mass press conferences at the bottom of the slope were being conducted by men from Kneissl skis and Tyrolia bindings -- the products worn by the winner.

On the other hand, don't ask Canada's Ken Read, one of the prerace favorites, how he feels about his bindings. They broke and he lost a ski 15 seconds into the race.

The sport that combines all the technical aggravations of both Alpine and cross-country skiing is the obscure biathlon, which mixes the miseries of cross-country endurance with the frustrations of trying to fire a rifle in the snow.

When sports fans gather and ask, "What is the craziest sport on earth?" the word "biathlon" often springs to the lips. No two activities could be more contradictory than the exertion of skiing and the total calm of shooting. But, of course, that's the whole devilish point of the thing.

Does a biathlete wear gloves? It's good for skiing, but bad for shooting. How about underwear? It's lighter without it for skiing, but when you lie prone in the snow to shoot, it is nice to be wearing long johns.

If the temperatures drop sharply while a biathlete is on the course, he may even wish that he had brought several types of ammo. When the chill is below zero, some bullets often fall short of their targets.

The subzero temperatures expected here have many an athlete near panic. The skilift for the Alpine skiing is so slow that frostbite is a danger. The U.S. bobsledders and lugers have called in NASA to give them cream that will keep their visors clear of frost down to minus-240 degrees.

One solution to the expected Placid weather is simple. Committees have been formed to decide at what temperature different outdoor sports should be postponed. The range is from minus-four to minus-20 depending on the event.

Many an athlete here wishes that his problems and the hidden demands of his sport were no more difficult to grasp than the simple notion of cold weather.

For instance, the advanced technology of the luge -- a deceptively innocent-looking 50-pound sled -- is so tough that American lugers admit that they are hopelessly behind the East German champions.

First the East Germans discovered 20 years ago that heating the runners of sleds with a blowtorch would lower their times. that was outlawed. Then, they tried filling the hollow luge runners with boiling oil. That was banned.

Now, an official takes the temperatures of every luge's runner before every race, just as though they were sick patients.

That, however, doesn't mean that the East Germans want their sleds too closely scrutinized.

"I once picked up an East German sled by accident," said John Fee, senior member of the U.S. luge team, "and some huge guy jumped out from behind a tree, grabbed me, and made me drop it.

"I've seen the East Germans take peoples' cameras and expose the film if pictures were taken of their luges."

In part this tactic probably is psychological warfare. But then, these Winter Games are richer in mental tricks and psych tactics than most American sports.

American athletes, performing on their home ice and home mountains have caught on quickly.

U.S. figure skaters also have caught on to important international mind games. The coach of U.S. pairs hotshots Tai Babilonia dn Randy Gardner has filed a letter of protest, pointing out all the obscure rules violations committed by the Soviet pair of Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev -- flaws that have gone unnoticed for the last five years.

"They're basically doing the same old things they did at the '76 Olympics (when they won gold)," said Babilonia with a meaningful sigh. "We see nothing new. Rodnina doesn't even have to land by herself. Zaitsev always catches her."

To catch the judges' eyes, and to emphasize their daring, Babilonia and Gardner open their program with their most daring move -- a throw double axel where Babilonia is hurled 20 feet. In a hundred such little-known ways, Olympic gold medals are won and lost.

Of all the events here, only one sport, and one team within that sport, can prosper without a trace of trickery, technological edge, psychological warfare or any other gimmick. That is the Soviet hockey team.

On the first night of these Olympics, the U.S.S.R. hockey team -- the best in the world (including the NHL All-Stars) led Japan by 13-0 after two periods.

As the final period mercifully began, in what was to become a 16-0 debacle, a Soviet fan in a sealskin hat turned to an American acquaintance and said in English, "Okay, time to turn on electric chair again."