We tend to think of the Winter Olympics as timeless bubbles caught in the flow of athletic history, like those snow-filled paperweights in which a pristine scene is frozen.

The distinctive quality of the Winter Games is the way they appear in the midst of our winter doldrums like a two-week aurora borealis, then, just as suddenly, disappear.

Of course, the northern lights from Lake Placid leave an afterglow, like a television scene that has just been turned off in a dark room.

Nevertheless, these Games are a celebration as quick and ephemeral as a cherry blossom festival. The central Olympic performers are as colorful yet as perishable, as winter hothouse orchids.

Our other sports events have a before and after, a continuous tradition of which they are a part. A World Series appearance, for instance, fits into the entire genealogy of a team.

We follow careers like unbroken lines on a graph from their inception to their end. We examine, reevaluate, and appreciate a Willie Mays for 20 years, then enshrine his thoroughly understood accomplishments in a Hall of Fame.

The athletes of the Winter Games even more than those of the Summer Olympics, seem to appear out of nowhere, have their days, then recede.

As the simplest example, in January, Eric Heiden was less known than Elrod Hendricks. In February, the president hugged him.

Now, in March, how many fans could name the city where, at this hour, he is skating for the world championship?

We don't need to chastise ourselves just because America's breath is not bated over the speed-skating results from Heerenvene, The Netherlands, this weekend.

Nor do we need to get grumpy because Joe Namath or Reggie Jackson can commandeer center stage for 10 years, while Heiden's athletic lifetime on television lasted exactly 10 days, from first gold to fifth.

The public's appetite for sport is a bit like a surfer who waits for a wave, rides it toward shore pulls out before it crashes, then waits for another.

As spectators, we aren't so much passive watchers as we are riders of emotional waves who enjoy pursuing the horizon for the next promising swell.

When Heiden skates in Heerenveen, or Linda Fratianne goes to the world figure skating championships next week in Europe, or, the following week, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner go to their world championships for pairs in Prague, those waves are simply too remote for us to catch.

We miss something by losing touch with our new tinderbox heros and heroines.

But we also gain something.

We are approaching a time of sports saturation, if we haven't already reached it.One of the ugliest trends in our system of exalting celebrity athletes is the tendency to inflate them season by season, then, when we grow jaded with their act, to prick them with a pin. Make 'em and break 'em, it's called.

It is hardly an athletic phenomenon. Incumbent presidents and movie actors face the same exhausting task of staying hot.

The difference between our normal brand of American sports heroes and our small band of Lake Placid stars is the difference between the complex characters of a thick novel and the simple vivid images of a short lyric poem.

We follow our teams and our stars as we would a traditional 19th-century novel with a vast heaping up of anecdote, detail and incident. Baseball with its 2,000-game careers, is the most extreme example of the general rule.

We come to know our Aarons and Nicklauses so well -- even watching their characters change under the slow, glacial force of decades of experience -- that we await new seasons as we would new chapters as ever-more complete elucidations of personality.

Too often, when the full and final portrait of our protagonists is drawn, we see undeniably tragic or extremely tangled and unsettling figures that haunt us:

Ty Cobb, spikes high in youth, but demented with paranoia in age always twisted by the memory of his mother killing his father with a shotgun in a mysterious accident. Or, Babe Ruth with his Rabelaisian tastes, his prejudices and his sad, comic, perpetually unsatisfied orphan's face.

Sometimes, we wonder if we should have known them so well.

To a blessed degree, our Winter Olympians are spared that stepping as they do from shadow into bright light, then back into those forgiving shadows once more.

In a sense, we see them only in their moment of brilliant youth and maximum accomplishment. Even in failure, they have a certain grand piquancy that penetrates like poetry.

At least in the public mind, Lake Placid provides a series of imperishable images which are indestructible, and almost untarnishable, because they are unrepeatable.

Jim Craig may be in goal for the Atlanta Flames now, but the hockey team of which he was the symbol is forever disbanded. Those 20 gap-toothed youngsters, all kissing their medals, all hugging, all pointing their index fingers heavenward, seem permanently attached to their tiny crowded victory platform as much a permanent work of art in our memories as the Iwo Jima statue which they resembled.

Just as poetry has many moods, so are our Placid lyrics of many kinds. Anyone who was 10 feet from Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, when they burst off the ice after pulling themselves out of the Olympics, will always remember her as a Scheherazade vision made more beautiful by her tears and he a figure more dignified for his catatonic numbness.

Fratianne, an orange Flamenco flamingo, will always seem an appropriate quixotic embodiment of what is meant by Olympic silver. Her face shifting through a half-dozen emotions during the seconds before, during and after her marks were flashed, Fratianne was near-perfection in figure skating: a performer who lacked only that extra something for which there is no name.

This Olympics had a rapid and dramatic pace -- a clean line of progression, complete with themes that seemed like refrains.

For the first 10 days, Lake Placid seemed to have a dirge-like undertone, America, unprepared in Iran, caught by surprise in Afghanistan, couldn't even organize an Olympics. Foreign free-world journalists talked, with pained expressions, about the obvious link, then left it out of their stories: proof of its dismaying power.

A succession of American favorites failed. Defeat seemed infectious. Then, in the last days, the whole mood of Lake Placid changed.

The buses began to work, but, far more important, it became obvious that it didn't matter whether they did or didn't. For bearance and improvisation. American inginuity and a little international goodwill, made this Olympics functional before Greyhound arrived.

Then, at last, heroism even greater than anyone had expected began to appear. Phil Mahre won a silver on the mountain that had broken his ankle the year before.

The Soviet Union and East Germany may have won the medal count, Heiden was the dominant individual -- not just in '80, but in Winter Olympic history. And the U.S. hockey team was the dominant squad -- once again, not only by the standards of '80, but in all Winter Olympic history.

Let us, mercifully, allow these heroes to leave the stage with grace. They have gained more than they have lost by the brevity of their stay.