This is about Olympic medals that ought to be made of paper, about athletes who compete against the best in the world but who have about as much chance of winning as you and I.

Would you believe someone could be called an Olympian and still be lapped by the leader halfway through one of the 10,000-meter run heats?

Would you believe there were Olympians at Lake Placid who were scared to leave the start box of the giant slalom, so steep was the takeoff area and mountain?

Would you believe that during the decathlon javelin competition here Saturday, officials were scurrying for cover each time the Olympian from Sierre Leone grabbed his spear?

Believe it. So many casual Olympian watchers have the idea that every athlete in every event is equally gifted, that all of them are superior beings capable of extraordinary performances and that all that separates first from last is that illusive on-any-given-day twist of fate.

There have been some extraordinary performances in these '80 Games, extraordinarily bad even by Olympic standards that regularly feature athletic slapstick.

This is because the boycott by about 50 nations has caused Olympic officials almost to round up teams off the streets in some countries to flesh out the fields here.

"Hi there, little girl," the recruiting pitch surely must have gone at some swimming hole somewhere. "Want a free trip to Moscow? Want to be our Olmpic team? Here's how far you have to swim. You don't have to win or anything. Just make sure you don't drown."

They did not have to drag the Libyan swimmer Soud Fezzani out of the pool during one women's 400-meter freesytle heat, but she got a standing ovation from the crowd after her furiously futile slashes at the water finally brought her to the finish line more than a minute behind the winner.

The swimmers from East Germany and Mozamibique were the most consistent at these Games. East German women won 10 of a possible 13 gold medals and scored one-two-three sweeps in six events. They set six world records.

One Mozambique swimmer finished last among 42 competitors in the men's 200-meter freestyle; another was last among 25 competitors in the men's 100-meter breaststroke; another was 29th among 34 competitors in the men's 100-meter butterfly. Another was next to last in the men's 200-meter butterfly -- but more than 10 seconds swifter than the doggie-paddler from Kuwait.

A Benin boxer finally won a match the other day, after five of his teammates lost first-round bouts. And three of those failed to last the first round.

India sent an equestrian team, but its riders in Saturday's cross-country event were so inexperienced that race officials urged them not to compete on the rain-slicked course. They tried -- and all four Olympians either were thrown off their mounts or disqualified because their horses balked at a barrier.

The Tanzanians finally scored in field hockey the other day, but have surrendered 54 goals in losing five straight matches.

Boualong Bougnavong of Laos could not crack 30 seconds in the 200-meter dash for women.

In truth, the fellow who was lapped halfway through one of the 10,000-meter heats here was not as pathetic as Olmeus Charles of Haiti in the '76 Games in Montreal. He at least broke 40 minutes. Charles staggered home in 42 minutes, nearly 14 minutes behind the heat winner.

The reason for these Olympian lows is that every country can enter one athlete in every event, regardless of whether that person has met the qualifying standards.

This is why a British speed skater who could not even start properly was an Olympian at Lake Placid -- and why a British writer noted that the number of entries for the women's downhill skiing was 26 and said: "The Brit stands a fair chance of making the top 30."

I'm reasonably sure that the sports staff at The Washington Post could, with a few months of training, be in contention for a medal in men's field hockey here. Earl Jones could probably gather 10 buddies from the Washington playgrounds and win the bronze medal in basketball.

You perhaps have sensed a strain of elitism here. It is not totally intentional, for every country has its sporting priorities, games it chereishes and games it pays scant attention to. If India looks funny on a basketball court to Americans, its field hockey players would make ours seems silly.

Some countries decide the quickest way to gain worldwide notice is to dominate an area of Olympic sport. Cuba is a force in boxing and men's track sprints, although one of its women also won the javelin here.

East Germany was the first to emphasize weight training for its women swimmers -- and they are the best in the world, though almost as unfeminine looking as ome Eastern European women field specialists.

The Ethiopians and Finns always are among the elite long-distance runners.

The Japanese have exquisite men's gymnasts. The U.S.S.R. is the only nation obessed with winning every event in the Olympics. It probably is the only one willing to devote the money and energy to doing it.

What little charm the Olympics offers at the moment in diversity, the chance to see the Indian field hockey players, the East German swimmers, the Romanian gymnasts, the Ethiopians runners, the Cuban boxers and the Soviet everythings during one two-week athletic binge.

But much of that appeal even is gone. In Montreal, the Black African boycott made a sham of a good deal of the running and boxing competition. The American-led boycott has made these Games even more tainted.

With the exception of several splendid British athletes the Moscow Games have developed into exactly what everyone knew they would -- a dual meet between East Germany and the Soviets. The one mild surprise is that the bad athletes seem to be worse than ever.