They still are called the 22nd Olympic Games. In truth, they are the 3rd olympic games, undervalued and eroded over the years by politicians and politically minded athletes -- and murderers -- to a point where frustration dominates a festival dedicated to joy. A flame will burn brightly in Moscow for a forthnight starting Saturday, but in few hearts elsewhere in the world.

No longer can the zeolots preach that athletic Games are above -- and removed from -- real-world games. The who-will-play-with-whom questions these last seven months have involved political hardball at a nasty level, as well as a deep searching of conscience.

Unlike the sporting variety, political games have few absolute measurements of success. So President Carter's boycott decision has been both effective and ineffective. It has reduced the Games to the games, stripped competition in many events to barely tolerable standards and embarrassed the Soviets in most eyes but their own.

Still, the games go on. There is not enough pressure to have them moved -- or canceled. And Soviet propagandists surely are bright enough, with words or perhaps a nudge here and there, to sway internal opinion their way.

The Americans, West Germans, Japanese and others who comprised 40 percent of the medal harvest four years ago in Montreal are not coming? No big concern, the World Wizzards will insist. World records still will be set in many events.

That mind race already is in full stride.

In a release titled "A Green Light for the Olympic Express," the Novosti Press Agency says "The rhythm and pulse of the 1980 Summer Olympics are now being heard and felt throughout Moscow, reassuring everyone that the coming sports festival will be a total success.

"The champions of the Olympic movement on all five continents were pleased to hear that the Olympic host country had successfully completed the construction of all the projects connected with holding the coming Games.

". . . The world has so far stood fast against the attacks of those wanting to stop the Olympic Games. In Britain, the latest attempt to intimidate the Olympic team ended in failure . . . It is symbolic that this also happened in Australia . . .

"Their impotence has thrown the opponents of the Olympic Games into a rage. They insist on still trying to raise obstacles in the way of the Olympic express: in Switzerland, the rowers had their boats burned; in Portugal, explosives were planted in the NOC (National Olympic Committee) offices; in Puerto Rico, the American firms dismissed all athletes who decided to attend the Games. And the U.S. Senate has elevated the anti-Olympic movement to the rank of state policy.

"Of course, one can certainly use another stick to intimidate Olympic athletes, but how can one believe the assertions of the anti-Olympic propagandists about the successful boycott of the Moscow Games?

". . . The athletes who are being used as hostages are sadly looking at the happy Olympic community, to the large family of athletes who are getting ready to go to Moscow, where special enthusiasm reigns. These athletes have already established more than 50 world records in various Olympic sports."

Yet the games still have a fascination, especially in a country where losing can seem more like death than any defeat George Allen ever suffered. The NFL still would be newsworthy if the Redskins, Cowboys, Vikings and Raiders seceded for a year.

Symbolically, will the medals be chocolate gold, tasty but with no lasting substance? Many will. But no more than several in Montreal in '76, when 28 black African nations walked out of the village in protest over New Zealand being allowed to compete.

Were the American boxers celebrated less because many excellent Africans were unable to possibly turn their gold into silver? Was Edwin Moses' victory in the 400-meter hurdles tainted by the absence of John Akii-Bua?

Would the American stand in the '80 olympics have been more forceful if Americans had supported the African stand on the '76 olympics? But would the black Africans have received more black American athletic sympathy in '76 if they had supported Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they were expelled from the '68 Games after their black-gloved, up-raised-fist domonstration on the victory platform?

In prior years, it always was more comfortable for athletes and other True Believers not to think too deeply about the Olympics. They are fun to watch -- and profitable. A quick rationalization was readily available, then back to the triple jump. And over to Cathy and Chris with the Barbie dolls in gymnastics.

Few escaped troubling questions this time. Governments answered them for American and Communist-block athletes. Others tried and failed. Most French athletes will participate; the French equestrian team will not.

The Australian swimming federation reportedly was so evenly divided on the issue it left the decision to each athlete. At least three Americans reportedly will compete, according to wire-service reports.

Alberto Mercado, a 112-pound boxer who has won Pan American Games and World Cup titles, is in Moscow as the only athlete among the five-member Puerto Rican delegation. Bill Rea, former standout at Pitt, has taken advantage of being born in Austria to compete in the long jump. And Mike Perry, a native of New York state, will coach the Swedish basketball team.

Swaziland will not compete, though that decision was not ideological. Its only Olympic-caliber athlete, marathoner Richard Mabuza, has a muscle injury.

Many American athletes are more than disappointed with their history of being convenient pawns for government and sporting officials. Some African world-class athletes have suffered more. The spectacularly-gifted Kenyan distance runners will be boycott victims for the second straight olympiad.

Sydney Maree is a black world-class middle distance runner permitted in almost no international meets.

Because he is South African.

And because South Africa treats blacks so horribly.

Is there any greater irony?

Yes. Afghanistan, whose invasion in December by the Soviets triggered the American-inspired boycott, is listed as fielding an Olympic team.