Vladimir, the sportswriter from Pravda, was worried. His boss had just wired his assignment for Sunday's paper, the last day of these Winter Olympics.

"He wants 'mosaic,'" said Vladimir, rolling his eyes.

"I must collect ancedotes and stories. I must put them all together into a mosaic to tell what the Olympics mean.

"Oh, boy," said Vladimir, who has a small mustache and the shy, worried smile of a man who has been told not to make mistakes. "Will you help me with these ancedotes?"

"Sure, said the reporter from The Washington Post. "My editor wants a collage' for Sunday. Same thing. Well trade stories."

"Good, good," said Vladimir. "You go first."

So, the capitalist scrivener filled Vladimir's ear with tales of a truck falling through a lake's ice, of dissension on the U.S. bobsled team, of pranksters on the U.S. speed skating team putting a dead wild boar in a teammate's bed.

"Uuuummm," said Vladimir, approvingly. "What can I do for you?"

Thus, having laid his cunning plan to trade soft nothings for hard somethings, the American reporter casually asked Mr. Pravda about the rumors surrounding the Soviet Union's reigning world champion figure skater Vladimir Kovalev.

Kovalev, it has been said, returned to the Olympic Village at six one morning in a state of inebriation. The next morning, he had been hung over and wobbling at skating practice.

Kovalev had then disappeared from Lake Placid for three days, neither practicing nor being seen. Unconfirmed reports were that he was in Salem, Mass., getting dried out and practicing in private, away from the temptations of this Sodom in the Adirondacks.

Finally, Kovalev resurfaced in time for his compulsory program, only to appear disoriented. He almost skated into a wall doing a figure-eight, finished in fifth place, then was withdrawn from the Olympics by Soviet officials who said Kovalev had "bad flu" and could not make any comment himself.

After all, this Kovalev was the same well-known Russian free spirit who once was stripped of his Merited Master of Sport medal because he showed up stewed to the eyes for an honors ceremony in Red Square.

Could Vladimir of Pravda throw any light on this affair/ Did Kovalev have a one-way plane ticket to Yakutsk?

"I am glad you asked," Vladimir said. "We have seen many reports about Kovalev's behavior. Many people have said that we have withdrawn him as a disciplinary measure."

Vladimir leaned forward to whisper in his fellow reporter's ear. The moment of scoop was at hand.

"Eeees all bull," said Vladimir.

Is this the way it goes at the SALT talks?

Heroism, the Caucasian mountaineers once said, is endurance for one moment more.

If this be heroism, then the Lake Placid Olympics have been the Heroic Games, Endurance for one moment more has been the common denominator of almost everone here -- both athletes and sepectators.

A Swede beat a Finn for the gold medal in a 15-kilometer ski race by .001 of a second. That was endurance for an instant more.

"When I got off the plane in Saranac Lake, my baggage had been left back in Albany," said a man who has been here 15 days." That should have been a clue.

"I rented a car in Lake Placid. I assumed it had snow tires. I mean, wouldn't you think it would?

"It didn't. I found that out when I went down a small hill that dead ended, then got stuck on the ice and couldn't get back up.

"The rent-a-car slid sideways into a boulder and a six-foot long strip was torn off the side of the car.

"That's nothing, because the next day, the Placid police towed the car out of a no-parking zone. Cost me $64.

"I've gotten the car out of a snow-drift, and I've ransomed it out of the police pound. But this morning I got up and the battery was dead. It won't move.

"All things considered, the car has been one of the strong points of my stay. At least, compared to the housing.

"Four of us were supposed to stay at Winkelman's Motel in two rooms. Cost us $3,000 for two weeks. Winkelman's is in Wilmington, which is 11 miles from Placid.

"Let's just say that after two days at Winkelman's, we decided that it was worth $3,000, and perhaps more, not to stay there.

"We forfeited the remainder of the Winkelman's rent -- a dead loss, and rented a house in Lake Placid on Main Street for another $5,000. We rented it sight unseen. It had to be better than Winkelman's.

"It was. Let the world know that our house on Saranec Avenue is a palace. It has heat. It has hot water. It has closets with doors on them. pIt doesn not have dozens of large black flies.

"On the other hand, it looks like Animal House after a dozen Blutto's finished with it. It is stripped bare to walls and floors. No bedding, no pictures, no doorknobs.

"Well, there is one doorknob. We pass it around. 'Hey, who's got the doorknob?' If you slam the bathroom door behind you, and have forgotten the doorknob, you could be incarcerated for hours.

"Actually, the front door does have a knob. Unfortunately for us, since none of the house keys we were given will work in any of the outside locks. The result is that we lock all the doors from the inside, then sneak out the basement door.

The basement door has been unlocked for 15 days. Each day we come home and hold our breath to see if we've been robbed.

"Our Saranec Avenue home also has a telephone -- a pay telephone. I never saw one installed in a dining room before.

"Many things have gone wrong," said this man. "I have been stranded miles from town at the opening ceremonies, and I have frozen on Whiteface Mountain. But one thing went right.

"We have plenty of blankets now. We went back to Winkelman's to empty rooms for which we are still paying $3,000, and stripped all four beds.

"As we were leaving, the Winkelman's night clerk said, 'Take them if you want. You'll be billed later.'"

This tale of woe -- a typical one here and hardly worthy of sympathy -- is easy to verify. The man in question is me.

Now if we can just figure a way to get the pillows and blankets back to Winkelman's in the dead rent-a-car with no snow tires. Maybe we can call a taxi on the pay phone.

And leave the front door unlocked.

Police are astonished that, at last report, the entire Olympic area has suffered no robberies, no murders, no rapes and no fatal accidents.

"I find it hard to believe that this can be possible," the local police commander said.

What is on display at the Olympics is not human nature. Whether it is something better is moot. But it's different.

Lake Placid is a luminous, vivid Hudson Bay School vision come to life. That helps. If snow on mountain lakes and winding roads through a wilderness of virgin fir do not soothe the savage instinct, then perhaps Ice Age ravines or frozen rivers littered with boulders as big as houses can teach unspoken lessons about serenity.

Whatever the causes, mankind has acquitted itself unaccountably well here. The main street of Lake Placid, where dogs have presumably slept undisturbed for generations, has become an international bazaar.

The street, less than a half-mile long, is closed to traffic, lending to it a parade day mood. On this tiny boulevard, lined by brightly-colored and cheery shops dedicated to the sole purpose of brazenly gouging every last nickel, no form of humanity is out of place.

Here, the elite, the outrageous and the downright insane meet and mingle with world figures, kings and a couple of local winos. What links the jet setters, the jocks and journalists, the college kids and the idly curious, is a sense of competitive style: costumery as personal statement and hobby.

Mimes and clowns, red noses, white faces and "J-E-S-U-S" printed on a forehead cause no more stir than the jaded rich with knee-length furs and yellow-tinted ski goggles.

From dawn until midnight, knots of folks gather in an Olympic ritual far older and more atavistic than any granting of laurels or medals.

They trade junk: mostly pins, but also caps, clothes, stickers, patches, and insignias. All worthless, all symbols.

Mostly, of course, they trade smiles and names, gibes and jests; barter is primarily the party and thrust of personality, a dance of acquaintanceship.

At its best, the Olympic mood is one of infectious camaraderie, an atmosphere where people who have never met can poke and prod and examine each other without the fear that they will suddenly find themselves in a social briar patch.

On the other hand, much of the Olympics is extremely status conscious. What kind of badge do you have? What letter are you ("E" is for press, "T" for technician). Where are you allowed? A sense of barriers and privilege and "open sesame" is in the air if you have the nose to sniff it. This is an event where, if you cared, it was possible to be in the socially proper place -- the Whitneys' party, the Austrian ski house, the restaurant table next to Lord Killanin. Where else do you find a king (Kar XVI Gustaf of Sweden) leading cheers on the slope?

Nevertheless, the dominant ambiance of this place is more innocent, more childlike, more thoughtless.

If you want to take a ride in a dog-sled pulled by seven Siberian huskies, sign up. If you want to buy one of a dozen Siberian pups in a new litter, that's possible, too. Don Meredith bought one with white-blue eyes and silvery fur.

If you fance a mad dash around and about Mirror Lake, there are snow mobiles for rent. The only rule of the ice is that if you kill yourself, or someone else, the owner is not liable.

The absence of a major snowmobile disaster is another Olympic miracle, one more special dispensation from the laws of probability that has left the Lake Placid scoreboard of tragedies at "0-0-0 . . ."

The two dominant athletic motifs of the Winter Olympics are terror and grace. Perhaps the luge run at night best captures the strident note of fear that runs like a major chord through the downhill ski race, bobsled and ski jump, while figure skating epitimizes the solitary grace that also elevates nordic skiing and speed skating.

The luge is a great white ugly snake that coils its way up Mount Von Hovenberg, hiding behind hillocks, doubling back on itself, climbing through the trees so that only a fraction of its menacing length is ever visible at once.

The luge looks like some uncompleted section of the Alaskan pipeline, sheared in half, then frozen over inside through disuse. It's a homely, low-budget critter with rough edges and exposed innards. You wouldn't want it to be pretty.

The luge shouldn't be watched on TV, where it looks dumb and not all that dangerous. The luge should be watched from so close that you could reach out and slap the luger's hand.

Only one instant matters in digesting the meaning of the luge: that tenth of a second when, six feet from your face, a 200-pound human rocket explodes out of a blind curve with a hideous hiss and you know for certain that you are dead.

Of course, the luger stays on the course, hugging the wall. So you don't die. You just think you're going to. That's what it's all about, because that grab at the gate is what the luger feels every time down the mountain.

Adding, if possible, to the sense of grisly danger is the shimmering, sinister shine of the luger's plastic uniform under the moon and the arc lights. The luger might be a bloody embolism, or an unspeakable outerspace monster.

The leap of comprehension is too great to grasp when men jump off mountains on skis, or slide down them with death as a brakeman. By contrast, nothing could be simpler than to understand the attraction of figure skating. Can a human look more beautiful?

If it is impossible to identify with a luger, it is almost impossible not to identify with a figure skater. It's the sport that fills the seats here. It's the top ticket.

In the sports of terror, spectators secretly want disaster. Not death, but the wild spill. In the sports of grace, the crowd holds its breath as the individual weaves a rhapsody of the movement. The longer the figure skater maintains his spell, the greater the desire to see him finish intact.

That collective tension, that rooting not only for excitement but for wholeness and flawlessness, reached its most taut point here in the men's finals for little Scott Hamilton.

Hamilton was not the best skater, nor did he even win a medal. He finished fifth. But he got the most cheers, the most bouquets of flowers on the ice, the biggest standing ovation.

Why? Because figure skating is a romantic defiance of human limitations. Who says a person cannot be as graceful as a swan, as swift as a greyhound, as free a spinning dervish as any creature of nature?

They don't play the "Moonlight Sonata" to accompany hockey games.

Hamilton was a proper embodiment of these notions because the pale, almost frail, 18-year-old is the smallest man on the U.S. team at 5 feet 4. He was an invalid as a child, enduring a growth-stunting intestinal disease for five years before figure skating (he thinks) catalyzed some physiological change that straightened him out and defeated his rare disease.

Hamilton's story is so well known here that the U.S. team made him its flag bearer.

"This whole Olympics has been a dream," said Hamilton.

"When I hit the first triple, the adrenaline just took over," Hamilton said. "I nailed all three triple jumps to start the program, and I knew the crowd was with me. When it's like that, and I do something difficult and the crowd holds its breath, it makes my heart stop a little.

"When I went into my final spin and everybody knew I'd made it without a mistake, the noise was so loud that I couldn't hear anything. Nothing like that's ever happened to me on that scale. I didn't want the spin to end. l

"I was so pumped up, I felt like skating another three or four minutes."

Throughout this Olympics, the biggest U.S. names have often been bitter, bleating about how the expectations of their countrymen have eroded their performances.

Hamilton was the refreshing exception, an Olympian concerned only with pure performance and the thrill of the moment.

The Olympic Games are not supposed to have to call in the Salvation Army, the Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, the Defense Department, the Greyhound Bus Company and a horde of high school kids from Plattsburgh to keep it from being declared a disaster.

This one did.

The Salvation Army set up soup lines for the freezing thousands who stood for hours in bus lines. The Girl Scouts answered thousands of telephone calls from fans who were plundered in ticket scams.

The Red Cross organized sing-a-longs and jumping jack sessions for those same shivering mobs. The Defense Department was called in on the 10th day to measure the Mirror Lake ice and make absolutely sure that it would not colapse during the nightly awards ceremonies, turning 5,000 people into Little Evas hopping across the ice floes.

And the Plattsburgh kids, conned into driving radio-taxis on the promise that they would get into outdoor events free, ended up working around-the-clock shifts to move 6,000-10,000 people a day in 60 small vans.

Was it malfeasance or misfeasance -- venality or incompetence?

Aw, shucks, it was a whole lot of both.

Lake Placid gave a performance worthy of "Our Town."

This wasn't the Little Town That Couldn't. It was the little town that barely even tried.

Every Winter Olympics is awash in the most gross commercialism.That famous Austrian amateur Annemarie Moser-Proell makes $200,000-a-year from Atomic Ski. But this year an entire town joined the Olympic fiscal spirit -- that is, the spirit of stamping brand names on every stationary object.

However, in a novel and heartening twist, the profiteers and exploiters have taken their lumps here. Merchandise and souvenir refuse aren't moving well. "Going-Out-Of-Business Sale" signs are everywhere. "Make us an offer," pleads one.

Ticket scalpers are getting a royal reaming and anyone associated in the public mind with a quick buck is being given hard time. Even the agent-lawyer of Eric Heiden -- one Art Kaminsky -- who has not yet commited any ofenses against the public taste, has been given a sardonic moniker: the Shill of Victory.

As a final irony, the most conspicuous athletic brand name here is "Descente." Which, among many products, provides uniforms for the U.S. speed skating team which has won more medals than any squad.

"We've helped bring "Descente' up from nowhere," said coach Diana Holum, the U.S. coach, "We've gotten them a million bucks worth of free publicity on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated. We haven't gotten one dollar from them. All they've given us is a bunch of lousy uniforms that don't even fit."

"Folks never understand the folks they hate." James R. Lowell

The most moving and exciting moments of an Olympics are also the most ambiguous and the most unsettling because they are the most fiercely nationalistic. When the blood runs fastest, it also runs darkest.

Each night, thousands gather for the bestowing of medals. On a white lake, in blackness, they gather as robed torchbearers lead the victors forward. If mankind had made no progress in 3,000 years, the ritual could not look more pagan or sacrificial.

On the one hand, it is an innocent hour of fun. The fans chant, "Er-ic, Er-ic," for Eric Heiden, and a woman says, "Oh God, he's such a doll; his legs just kill me."

Lasers and spotlights crease the sky; a hang glider spitting fire flies through a sky lit up by spectacular fireworks that put many a Fourth of July show on the Washington Monument grounds to shame. "The Fantasy of the Lake" is the extravaganza's name as disco boogie accompanies the bombs bursting in air.

It is all harmless, but it is also moving. The bomb bursts of celebration resemble the bomb bursts of war.

A broad issue has run like an ebb tide under these games -- the question of America's boycott of the Moscow Games. Are these games above politics -- a testament to the common humanity that links all nations and supersedes the suspect motive of all governments? Or are these Olympics so tangled with politics that they are little more than political theater?

When the crowds roar "U-S-A" for Heiden and the rockets burst as the anthem plays, the question is hardly abstract.

On Friday night, the U.S. beat Russia, 4-3, in a game of ice hockey that some in attendance said was the most stirring athletic event of their lifetimes.

The difficult problem, of course, is to analyze exactly which deep recesses of the spirit that game aroused. And to ask whether that is an emotional caldron which needs stirring.

The U.S. - vs. - U.S.S.R. game duplicated, in miniature, many of the emotions and motivations that have fed the fires of every war in history.

It was an athletic contest of the highest order. And it was, in the deepest sense, contrary to the Olympic spirit.

If these are the last Olympics, no one need ask why.