The news hit veteran American sports watchers with about as much force as a javelin in the chest: "Track Amateurs to Be Paid." Lordy, what might be next, the real-world counterpart? Interest rates dropping to 1 percent, perhaps, or a frost warning in Hell.

For generations, U.S. athletes have been paid for running, jumping and grunting in their briefs and tank tops -- sometimes handsomely. But it was done in secrecy, as though gliding 110 meters over 10 hurdles was the athletic equivalent of bumping off a minor mobster.

That seems to be changing. Track and field has taken a long jump toward reality, removing a large hypocritical hurdle. For five U.S. meets next year, the sport's governing body has announced, the athletes will be able to accept money.

Five times an athlete will be able to accept his money almost totally above the table. Five times he will not find it in his socks or have to convert extra plane tickets into cash or lift a three-ounce ash tray three inches to win a large bet.

You have noticed the qualifier, the "almost." Track and field still will not be where it ought to be during those designated Grand Prix meets. And Hell might freeze over before it gets there.

An Athletics Congress official will not hand a check directly to an Edwin Moses or a Skeets Nehemiah. And because that money must be relayed through a club, like a baton in a relay, the new rules might create more problems than anyone realizes.

This sudden generosity by The Athletics Congress (TAC) comes, at least in part, because of a movement by the athletes to organize themselves. The Association of Track and Field Athletes sounds quite like a union, and although in the embryonic stages, already boasts members such as Nehemiah, James Sanford, Steve Scott, Eamonn Coughlan, Thomas Wesinghage, Stanley Floyd, Don Paige, Mary Decker, Madeline Manning, Francie Larrieu and Kathy McMillian.

No meet could generate more than yawns without that crowd. And an organization that speaks for most U.S. Olympic-caliber athletes just might be able to overthrow TAC, land television deals, eliminate the middlemen and funnel the money directly to its clients. That would be efficient and economical.

It also would be wrong.

It would be wrong for two reasons. For all its dumbheaded actions and stubbornness, TAC does an inordinate amount of good. It provides direction, facilities, officials and, yes, inspiration for countless athletes who otherwise would not get the chance to compete.

Also, every world-class athlete should give something back to his sport. This is especially necessary in track and field, the sport for which Americans have little enthusiasm other than two months before and two months after the Olympics.

If the Nehemiahs and Paiges, the Deckers, Herman Fraziers and the rest gobbled up all the available present money the development of future athletes would become stagnant. Probably realizing that, the athletes decided to cooperate with TAC rather than defy it.

"I'm not sure anyone could say that the (Grand Prix) plan will be," said one of the ATFA organizers, Craig Masback. "It's in the infant stages. But the challenge is to reward the elite athletes and also allow the ordinary athletes a chance to compete and develop. We want to improve the club system."

That is a noble goal, for regional clubs would provide the sort of community woefully lacking in the American athletic system. A club would be a haven before and after an athlete's high school and college career.

For this reason, it was decided that athletes during the Grand Prix meets would be paid through their clubs. But who defines clubs? How many members constitute a club? What must its purpose be?

It takes little imagination to see any number of selfish athletes forming their own clubs, one-person teams such as the Oasis Track Club formed by Dwight Stones in an unsuccessful attempt at banking all his Superstars money two years ago.

That would be a mockery of a potentially splendid system.

So would filtering money through some of the "clubs" that already exist. Those would be the ones formed by shoe companies, whose primary purpose is to pitch footwear rather than to teach youngsters.

If special care is not given to the structure of the Grand Prix, it easily might slip into a battle among the shoe giants, Nike's team vs. Puma's vs. the others, with the recruitment more fierce that in Big Eight football.

Only the companies and a few athletes win, Everyone else loses, immediately and long range.

"If you base it (the money allotment) on a win system," said Bob Comstock, whose knowledge of track and field is as vast as anyone's, "you don't broaden the base. You don't bring in any new blood.

"There's no doubt in my mind about the considerable change in attitude toward the discussion of these (aid-to-athlete) problems, to try and create some means of doing legally what everyone knows is going on, particularly in Europe.

"And we need some financial support for the clubs. The (Grand Prix) money should not be based just on top athletes, but also on participation. The top athletes already have some type of (financial) arrangement."

"Open running is on the horizon," Masback said. "It's just a matter of how far away each person sees the horizon. We saw it as closer than (TAC) did."

The Grand Prix step is a fine one. But merely the first of many that had better be taken carefully.