It was a question that had to be put to a Bill Rea: the American Olympians -- or most of them -- are in Washington being honored for obeying President Carter's boycott order. You are an American long jumper. You are competing. Why?

But no one with the slightest compassion would ask it as soon as he saw Rea outside Lenin Stadium today, for the tense all of a sudden had changed. Rea no longer was competing here. For him , the Olympics had ended a few minutes before when he failed to qualify for the long jump finals.

"I thought I still could compete with pain," he said of an injury that kept him from meeting the qualifying standard by two inches. "I guess when you look at it, jumping 7.74 (meters) with a torn ligament in the (left) ankle that requires an operation isn't all that bad.

"I hurt it May 10. At first, I didn't know what it was. So I took three weeks off, no jumping at all, just training. Later, I really got into a jump in a meet I had to have and felt unbelievable pain. The ankle was in ice for a day. That's when I knew there was trouble. But the X-rays seemed to show nothing.

"All we thought it was a spur. And I said: "What the heck, all I'm doing each jump is pinching it.' My running speed (today) was all right, but I didn't attack on my last two steps. I just felt loose when I got in the air. I wasn't extended. My back hurts now -- and I always know I've landed hard when that happens.

Rea is 26, the son of a retired Army officer, born in Austria and thus able to compete for the Austrian Olympic team. Of his first 20 years, Rea said, he spent about nine living throughout Europe.

He said most of his time in Austria was spent visiting grandparents during summer holidays. He graduated from a high school outside Pittsburgh in 1970 and has completed undergraduate and dental school work at Pitt.

In the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials, Rea missed making the team by even less a margin than he failed to gain the finals today. He entered the U. S. trials in 1976, but knew he was not fit enough to win a spot.

So why is he here?

"My being here is not a result of the boycott," he said. "My being here is a result of my being here in Europe last year and training. I was in a club in Austria and decided (before the boycott decision) that if I could go to the Olympics with Austria I would.

"I was sure if I made their qualifying limits I would go. If at the last minute things went bad in the U.S. trials, say, like they did in '72, I'd be stuck at home again.

"I didn't want to give up my job and train for a year and not get anything out of it. Right now, I've gotten a trip out of it which isn't the greatest in the world but at least I've competed in the Games."

Rea is certain that, uninjured, he easily could have made the finals -- and possibly earned a medal.

Rea said there was no undue pressure brought on him not to compete. Quietly, he left the States June 1 and generally had been out of touch until he arrived here late last week.

"Everyone I know wished me good luck," he insisted. "I saw the American team in Stuttgart -- and they all wished they could come and compete, do what I've done."

Apparently, not everyone Rea knows wished him good luck. What about his father, the career Army man? How did he take what amounted to defying a president?

"Well, you know I control my own life," Rea said. But he added: "I don't think he'd have come here to watch me. It's kind of difficult."