The Soviets even work hard at having fun. In their typical flair for the outrageously gaudy, they staged an olympic opening today whose only theme could be: "Look, world, we also can play better than anyone."

For more than a generation, the Soviets have been striving to make this day a reality, when one of their sporting masters (Viktor Saneyev) entered Lenin Central Stadium with the Olympic torch and another Sergei Belov) took it, made a spectacular, winding climb over what appeared to be the heads of members of a card section and ignited the Olympic torch.

But their most powerful pitch came after the Olympians had left the arena. Whenever possible, the Soviets try to counter the Western notion that they equate the production of Olympic athletes with the production of, say tractors -- and threat both with the same compassion when no longer useful.

There had been another stunning quote just the other day, from an unnamed Soviet gymnastics official while Elena Mukhina still lay in a hospital with a nearly paralysing spinal injury: "She was only an Olympic team candidate anyway. We have plenty of others to take her place."

Judging from the synchronized joy that followed the traditional Olympic pomp, they have thousands of spare athletic parts. Much of human-kind whose thoughts the Soviets wanted to reverse were carefully looking the other way, but the spectacle went on as planned. Many minds within the 15 republics need reinforcement, after all.

So wave after wave of young men and women -- and children -- burst onto an area slightly larger than a football field and filled nearly every inch of it with remarkably sophisticated tricks.

Dozens of men dressed in beige gymnastic suits lined up in drill-formation rows and performed a floor-exercise routine half the Olympic teams in the world could not equal. Then lavender-clad girls trotted on and were similarly skilled.

Then came the Mishas, more than 250 of them spewing out of brightly colored trucks and exercising like no other bears in captivity. Finally, out came the Soviet tots, tumbling and doing handstands and push-ups.

For the finale, every blessed one of them came out and tumbled or climbed up on tiered bars and stretched in some fancy fashion. Behind them, the card section was flipping into patterns USC rooters never considered in their wildest fantasy. The out-of-shape politburo looked on, benignly.

This was unique, not as stylish as U.S. Orange Bowl and Super Bowl halftime shows, certainly. But those tend to be full of gadgetry, with lights flashing on and off and ornate floats rolling by. These wee humans clearly celebrating sports, though in a distressingly ordered fashion.

The Soviets hope the impression of sporting happiness among the masses endures in millions of minds longer than the Olympic flame flickers here. But such precision is not possible without more than casual preparation.

One cannot imagine a June Taylor-ski flitting from town to town passing out instructions for the kiddies to hone their 1 1/2 twists and everybody meet in Moscow on Olympics eve for a quick run through. This took months, perhaps, to coordinate, training not quite on an Olympian scale but probably closer to it than a casual witness might walk away thinking.

"Soviet officials ascribe Russia's success at the Olympics to the mass proportions of sports activity at home -- and the news media flaunt impressive figures," Yuri Brokin wrote in "The Big Red Machine" last year. "Fifty million adults are busy with althletics and 20 million children engage in sports in school."

In truth, the figures are procured by juggling the statistics. Like any other Soviet institution, the sports hierarchy, from local trainers in Tadzhik truckstops to general managers in Moscow, runs smoothly only so long as an endless stream of reports makes its way uninterrupted to the top. They are intended to certify the claim of vast popular enthusiasm for sports and record a steady run of outstanding performances.

"Olympic planning in Russia does not focus on a sport's popularlity but on other countries' weaknesses in it. Several years ago, handball was unheard of, and canoeing and kayaking were known mainly through tales of American Indians and Eskimos. "But canny committee strategists gave the word . . . that they could lead to easy gold. A directive was dispatched to 23 physical culture institutes, 25 sports colleges and 85 university phys ed departments to set up crash courses. The result: six gold medals in kayaking and canoeing at Munich and six more, plus both gold medals in handball, at Montreal."

If Soviet youth grasp sport with a passion -- and they do -- a prime reason is that it can lead to a better life than otherwise might be expected. Like the sons of Appalachia in America who escape the mines through football, Soviet children run and jump to weatlh and glory.

In truth, sport in the Soviet Union gives much more attention to women than sport in America. And the Soviets might care for their special athletes when they decline more than Americans. But there is not likely to be an Edwin Moses developed here.

That goes far beyond the fact that Moses is black. He is an athlete hybrid, a mediocre 110-meter hurdler and a mediocre quarter-miler who stayed with running and jumping long enough to become the world's best 400-meter hurdler.

The Soviets do not seem to have that patience or persistence. Their system seems based on rigid performances, and with so many exceptional athletes in so many events, the stragglers probably are disregarded rather than encouraged to try another event.

I say probably. No one beyond the Soviet Union is quite sure what happens here athletically. And only a few high officials here are trusted with such knowledge.

But not every Soviet athletic prodigy stays with athletics.

At 5, Olga Paradashvili began figure-skating training. At 9, she was skilled enough to be invited by one of the country's best coaches to leave home and take up the life of a serious sportsperson.

"My mother wanted me to be a champion," she said the other day while guiding an American through a sports school. "It was a woman's emotions, nothing else. My father said, 'Think. Think it over. What can it lead to? Be a clever girl.'

"So I quit. I'm 23 now, an English student at Moscow Automobile institute. I was a cnadidate for master of sport, but I'm glad I followed my father's advice. I wasn't at the time. I am now."