One of the few things that everyone at the 13th Winter Olympics here would agree on is that we have entered a time of crisis for the Olympic movement.

"Olympism" -- an elusively noble concept for promoting international peace, friendship and understanding through sport -- is at a crossroads, torn between its idealistic, apolitical underpinnings and harsh political and economic realities that threaten to polarize world sport and rip the grand notion apart at the seams.

The man most in the middle is Lord Killanin of Ireland, 65, president of the International Olympic Committee.

From afar, he appears to be a rather pompous fellow. Americans tend to be skeptical of titles, and the impression of aristocratic arrogance is reinforced by the fact that Killanin is a dreadful public speaker -- given to mumbling and fumbling over the words that, as an old journalist, he chooses with extreme care.

Often photographed in front of the five-ring Olympic emblem of which he is chief trustee, Killanin has been called "the jovial Lord of the Rings." The rich vein of humor that underlines his serious devotion to principle has helped make him a skillful negotiator.

Third holder of the title that Queen Victoria bestowed on his grandfather, a chief justice of Ireland, Killanin began his professional life as a five-pound-a-week general assignment reporter. He later became a foreign correspondent, art and theater critic and author of books. He made a comfortable living as a film producer before indulging his passion for sports administration, but still lives unpretentiously in Dublin, and dislikes unnecessary extravagance.

"One of the great disadvantages I've found all my life is having a title without large fortunes or tracts of land," Killanin says. "I've found occasionally that waiters are very polite to me because of it, but normally it's more of a hindrance. One finds himself treated as somebody who's not down to earth, instead of one who has worked very hard all through life."

He recalls one occasion during his film-making career (he was assisting John Ford on "The Quiet Man," starring John Wayne) that he went to the MCA recording studios in Los Angeles and was pleased to find the receptionist totally unintimidated by his title.

"Then I realized," he recalls, Irish eyes atwinkle, "that she was quite accustomed to dealing with Duke Ellington and Count Basie."

Lord Killanin is in the last year of an eight-year term as president of the IOC, the elite self-elected and self-perpetuating body that oversees the Olympic Games.

He has agreed to remain in office through the 11th Olympic Congress, scheduled for Baden-Baden, West Germany, next year. His leadership as de facto secretary-general of this United Nations of sport is considered critical for the future.

The Congress -- bringing together the IOC, delegates from the National Committees of 143 nations, the 26 International Federations that govern the Olympic sports worldwide and other officials invited by the IOC -- will address the most crucial issues confronting the Olympic movement.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Killanin discussed a number of these, ranging from the use of anabolic steroids and other drugs by athletes ("This may be the greatest long-term danger to sport as we know it") to the adaptability of the IOC ("We must try to recruit younger members and change suitably with the times").

The most immediate and serious problem, he said, is the growing politicization of the Olympic Games.

Killanin believes the Olympics movement should remain, true to its charter, fundamentally apolitical. But in order to keep politics from destroying the Games, he admits, "the whole concept may have to be rethought." d

It has been suggested that the Olympics no longer are workable because massive media exposure invites political exploitation, and the enormous cost of staging the Games in the manner to which the world has become accustomed makes moving or canceling them as a deterrent to such exploitation a step too drastic to be exercised.

Killanin thinks that if the Games are to be saved, it is time to consider seriously several proposals or reform:

Establishment of permanent sites for the Summer and Winter Games in neutral countries.

This would reduce the financial burden of building new facilities, and eliminate East-West competition to host the Games. Since the Games never would be held within the borders of the superpowers, it would also reduce governmental temptation to boycott as an expression of ideological protest against the host nation.

Reducing nationalism at the Games by deemphasizing the use of medal counts.

Scaling down the size and grandiose trappings of the Games so that they are more manageable and affordable. This would include paring down the Olympic program, and emphasizing the design of facilities for multiple use during the Games, and maximum social benefit afterward.

Reexamination and refinement of eligibility rules for the Olympics, to bring definitions of "amateurism" in line with realities and requirements of modern training.

The end product possibly could be an "open Olympics," bringing together amateurs and avowed professionals, as long as this could be achieved without turning over control of the Games from the nonprofit "administrators" of the IOC to profit-motivated "promoters" of professional sport.

There are two schools of thought concerning permanent sites for the Olympics. "Some consider it a good thing to move them around, so that facilities are built and sport exposed in different parts of the world," said Killanin, "while others think a permanent location would solve many of the political and financial problems we face now."

Killanin will appoint a committee to study a recent proposal by Greek Prime Minister Constantin Karamanlis, who offered a tract of land near Olympia, site of the ancient Olympics, as neutral territory where a permanent site for the Summer Games could be built.

The Karamanlis plan would make the site "extraterritorial" beyond control by the local government, much as the New York home of the United Nations is outside U.S. jurisdiction. Killanin said he also would entertain a similar proposal for a site for the Winter Games, perhaps in Switzerland.

A report on "all aspects of the proposal" -- legalities, suitability, cost of constructing and maintaining necessary facilities, etc. -- will be made at Baden-Baden.

Since the 1984 Games already have been awarded to Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and Los Angeles, the earliest possible move to permanent sites would be 1988. a

A more realistic target date would be 1992, so the IOC is planning to act on bids next year for the 1988 Games. Among the cities that have expressed interest are St. Moritz and Davos, Switzerland; Chamonix, France; and the Tatra Mountain region of Czechoslovakia for the Winter Games; London, Brussels, Melbourne and Nagoya, Japan, for the Summer Games.No formal bids have yet been made.

Killanin insists that the cost of hosting the Games has been overestimated, and could be controlled by careful planning.

"It is the capital costs -- the building of housing, transportation systems and recreational facilities that are part of the normal course of municipal growth -- that hit the headlines and raise the talk of billions of dollars," he said.

"These capital improvements last 50 or 100 years, and should be looked at in this way. What might be called the 'running costs' of the Games virtually pay for themselves," he said.

Skyrocketing costs could be curbed, Killanin said, "if local organizing committees made less grandiose plans for showing-off purposes," and "if they put the emphasis on multipurpose halls that would receive maximum utilization after the Games, and housing that would be good social progress."

He blames the international sports federations for unrealistic demands ("all of a sudden they pass a rule that the ceiling must be two feet higher than the hall you've got"), and the organizers of the 1972 Munich Olympics for insisting on having all 21 Olympic sports, instead of 15 to 18, as was the previous custom.

"Now every city thinks that unless they can handle all 21 sports, they won't be awarded the Games. This is silly.Why should Montreal build an expensive grass hockey stadium when they play lacrosse in Canada, not grass hockey?" Killanin wondered.

"The Games have grown dramatically in size because we have more women competing, and there are now 143 countries with National Olympic Committees, compared to about 60 when I became a member of the IOC in 1952.

"More competitors automatically means more officials and more media.I don't have the figures, but I'm quite sure there are twice as many media personnel accredited at Lake Placid -- including technicians and all -- than athletes. There comes a point when it all becomes too unwieldy."

Killanin, whose greatest contribution as IOC president may have been his quiet reform of eligibility rules, thinks the regulations regarding amateurism must be refined further.

"We liberalized the rules to facilitate what you might call the capitalist world, as opposed to the Eastern Bloc, where aside from a few jockeys you have no sportsmen who are technically called professionals," said Killanin. "But you have your American scholarship boys, and big firms that are only too happy to have someone on the payroll for public relations purposes and release him to train, so the difference becomes quite narrow. We must supply guidelines, and adapt to the world as it is."

Killanin, whose son is a professional jockey, harbors none of the haughty disdain for professional athletes expressed frequently by his late predecessor, Avery Brundage, the autocratic president of the IOC from 1952 through 1972.

Brundage referred to professionals as trained seals who could never be true sportsmen. Killanin is more realistic, though he stops short of endorsing professional participation in the Olympics immediately.

"My misgiving about open Olympics is that in the end, the athletes become not only the victim of the politician, but the object of the impresario," said Killanin. "I have seen this happen in tennis in my own time.In the old days, the top players used to come to Ireland after wimbledon. When they all became professionals, there wasn't enough money to attract them, and they all flocked straight back to the United States. I think one has to evolve slowly and face the questions of what is best for sport throughout the world."