The most controversial member, the most difficult to assess, of the United States contingent at the Winter Olympics is almost certainly Dianne Holum, coach of the speed skaters.

Should she be the most praised or the most blamed at these Games? It is not easy to decide.

Has she, almost single-handedly, created the most powerful team at Lake Placid?

Or has she worn her athletes to a frazzel and burned them out before they ever got to the Olympics?

Has she been the driving force that has brought Eric Heiden to the point where he may become the first person to win five individual events in one Olympics?

Or is she the nervous, driven force that transmits anxiety to Eric's 20-year-old sister Beth and has eroded that skater's confidence to the point where she may sink from world champion in 1979 to flop in 1980?

Finally, have Holum's coaching calculations gone so far away that, outside of the unflappable Eric Heiden, not one of the skaters whom she personally coaches will win a single medal?

"I really have been feeling hassled," Holum said today, standing by the Olympic rink as her skaters worked out. "Everybody's crucifying Beth and saying she's blowing the Olympics.

"And everywhere I hear how I've worked my team to death, that I've killed 'em. Jesus!

"I didn't even wear my (trademark) white hat today," Holum said, laughing and pulling on a goofy ear-flapped blut hat. "I'm going incognito."

The almost spectacular irony about Holum is that, for more than 10 years, while she was giving her life to skating, becoming a sort of mother hen of the ice, nobody gave a tinker's damn about her.

She won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, worked her way to a masters degree and coached the United States team as a volunteer for six years while paying her bills as a waitress.

Nobody helped. Nobody cared.

Now, during the fortnight when she finally thought she might get her due, Holum is getting the international second guess.

So far, at the midpoint of this Olympics, the United States has four medals, all won by Holum's team: two golds by Eric Heiden and two silvers by Leah Poulos-Mueller.

Perhaps no coach in these Olympics can come so close to taking sole credit for the creation and development of an entire team as Holum. These are Holum's chicks, some of whom have been under her wing for eight years, since they were children.

A case certainly can be made that no female coach in American sports ever has matched Holum's accomplishments, especially considering that she teaches both men and women something thought to be out of the question in Europe.

On the other hand, Holum, with her chip on the shoulder and her sour twist at the mouth, is far from popular even within speed-skating circles. She is the paradigm of a scapegoat.

"Dianne does a remarkably good job of alienating people," said George Howie, president of the U.S. Speed Skating Association and chef de mission of these Olympics. "Her manner has always been abrasive and she has one heck of a temper.

"Dianne has succeeded, both in competition and as a coach, because she's a digger. She'll outwork everybody and she's so tenacious that she won't let anything stop her."

Speed skating, like many a tiny neglected sect that must fend for itself, has plenty of internecine strife. The less there is to go around, the more it's fought over.

There are Holum skaters, and Peter Schotting skaters (he is the other U.S. coach) and there are skaters like Peter Mueller and wife Leah Poulos-Mueller who have had enough of both of them and train alone.

"Dianne believes in conditioning and endless work, rather than technique. Maybe too much work sometimes," said Leah Poulos-Mueller, who, like Holum, is 28. "I doubt if any skaters in the world work as hard and long as hers."

That method brought the U.S. team 27 gold medals out of a possible 30 in international competition in 1979 -- the greatest domination by any nation in a century of the sport.

The stage was set for great expectations, especially since Holum, a born confidence-booster and cheerleader, has sung the medal-potential praises of a dozen skaters other than the Heidens.

Now, however, with five of the nine skating races done, all of the pupils in the Holum stable with the exception of Eric Heiden have gone to the post and come back with a fifth place or worse. The list includes: Beth Heiden (seventh, seventh and fifth), Mary and Sarah Docter, Tom Plant, Dan Immerfall (1976 silver medalist), Mike Woods and Jim Chapin, plus several promising skaters of world class, like Nancy Swider and Cindy Seikkula, who could not make the starting team.

It is difficult and touchy going to evaluate exactly how well or how poorly Holum's U.S. team has done.

"Eric has won the two races that worried us the most," said Holum. "The 500 and the 5,000 were his chanciest.

"The only one I'm worried about is Beth" said Holum, "because there's so much pressure on her. I talked to her this morning. This has really bothered her. I hope this hasn't been a bad progression that will hurt her in the 3,000 meters (on Wednesday).That's been ber best chance for a medal all along."

If Holum implies that Beth Heiden's only problem is coping with pressure, plenty of skaters suspect Heiden's problem with be Holum.

It's obvious," the young skater said Sunday, "that the East German and Russian coaches know how to train for a peak."

Schotting, whose position as the most prominent U.S. coach has been taken by Holum, said "Dianne expects everybody to be able to do what Eric Heiden does. She had the whole team peaked at the Olympic trials and now they're going downhill. Even Eric is fighting to hold on."

Holum has always said that America's one tatical advantage in speed skating was that because of lack of facilities and lack of funds, the U.S. skaters were on the ice far less than Europeans. As a consequence, Holum's skaters "are fresh at the end of the year when the other countries are skated out."

This year however, the U.S. team had sufficient money to travel because of its hot-shot reputation within the U.S. Olympic community. Also, said Holum," this was the worst year ever for international travel. We had to get on ice earlier than ever to be ready for the world championships.

"We had no choice, I've actually been trying to hold the kids back because they're naturally such hard workers. You have to make a decision and you just hope it's right."

For enduring all this hassle, Holum earns a queenly $15,000 a year. "That's a lot more than I made as a waitress," she said.

In the end, as long as Eric Heiden prevails, Holum will suffer little. He is her great creation. And, as she said today, chip firmly in place, "I never do anything I don't like. I do what I want. I always have."