The American boycott of the Moscow Olympics accomplished nothing. The Soviet Army remains in Afghanistan two years after Jimmy Carter demanded that it withdraw. The Games went on, minus only a few tourist rubles. And now, the South African rugby question: Should we allow apostles of apartheid to play here? Hell no. And send a note to Moscow, saying we still won't come.

Sports can not be divorced from politics. If sports is war with a smile, it yet is dark tribal politics, too. And if we judge South Africa's politics abhorrent, we ought to say, as we did to the Soviets, we will not play games with criminals.

This gets tricky. Many countries are perceived as criminal by other countries, some of which believe the United States particularly guilty. Also: In our democratic tolerance, we protect Nazis and Ku Klux Klan dragons. So how can we, the holier-than-thou democracy, deny South Africans the right to play a silly little game?

As it happens, protesters didn't stop the games, but the Springboks' three-game stopover moved legal proceedings to the New York Supreme Court. A game scheduled for Chicago was smuggled into Wisconsin, where reporters found it by getting directions from a clandestine informer in a green '54 Oldsmobile.

Had the State Department any sense of sports-as-politics, it would not have granted visas to the South Africans. They came to convince the world that the U.S. finds apartheid palatable and these rugby chaps, white and black, representative of an enlightened government.

Someone, somewhere, sometime has to say this is trash.

South Africa claims its rugby team, along with other racially mixed teams, is evidence that apartheid, the law categorizing blacks as inferiors, is on the wane. The South Africans say such mixed teams are a step forward. The step, they say, must be taken slowly so as not to stiffen opposition by reactionaries. This is an old song sung in our South until Martin Luther King wouldn't listen to the music anymore.

In fact, South Africa's mixed teams are transparent attempts to divert attention from the hateful reality of apartheid that even today herds blacks into "homelands" far removed from the ruling whites. In one such fictitious nation, Bophuthatswana, Frank Sinatra sang for $1 million and Jack Nicklaus will play golf this winter in a $1 million exhibition/tournament. If South Africa cannot earn dignity, it can buy a facsimile using famous Americans who say by their presence that these prison-state "homelands" are all right with them.

Someone, somewhere, sometime has to say apartheid isn't all right.

Much of the world's sports community has said that very loudly. The International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from its competitions 20 years ago. There is no sign of readmittance because there is no sign of retreat from apartheid.

South Africa's sports teams are persona non grata even in the Soviet Union, which in revenge has seized the moment of the Springboks' U.S. tour to suggest the '84 Olympics be removed from Los Angeles. Only the Soviets could equate an armed invasion of a peaceful country with a decision to admit some rugby players for three games.

And when done saying apartheid isn't all right, say South Africa isn't welcome on your playing field. You want nothing to do with advancing the hypocrisy that South Africa's teams represent a movement away from apartheid. Not when Bophuthatswana exists. Not when the IOC, the most holy of holier-than-thou organizations, banishes South Africa.

Politics and sports are eternally wed because sports is a vivid symbol. As South Africa uses rugby to deliver a message, so do the U.S. and the USSR use athletes to lobby for a way of life. Which brings up a good question.

Why do we play games with the Soviets -- the year after the Olympics, a U.S. track team competed in Moscow -- when we cry out in despair at the terrorism and brutality of the world's most repressive police state?

Why does no one complain about the Soviets and yet there is such a ruckus about the South Africans?

Please let me know when you figure that one out. I'm afraid it has something to do with bombs.