When the National Sports Festival was inaugurated here in 1978, most of the top U.S. athletes showed little interest in what was essentially an intramural competition. Today, as the first gold medals were awarded in the fifth edition of Bob Kane's brainchild, the festival was the place to be.

Edwin Moses, Evelyn Ashford, Greg Louganis, Rowdy Gaines, Steve Lundquist, Darrell Pace, Luann Ryon, Floyd Favors, Robert Nieman and Lee Kemp are among the Olympic and world champions who will be participating here through July 3.

A total of 2,700 athletes will compete in 33 Olympic and Pan American sports. The 1984 U.S. Olympic teams in ice hockey and women's field hockey will be selected here, as well as the diving, boxing, wrestling, soccer and men's field hockey teams for the Pan American Games in Caracas, Aug. 14-29.

The festival is important to track and field performers because competition will begin on July 1, the day qualifying marks may first be posted for the 1984 Olympic Trials. The thin air that reduces resistance, thereby aiding sprinters and jumpers, has produced a rush of athletes seeking to get those all-important qualifying efforts out of the way early.

Carl Lewis, reluctant to set any world records at high altitude before he has done so at sea level, still has not decided whether he will come. But Moses, assuming he wins against East Germany this weekend, will be bidding for his 77th straight success in the 400-meter hurdles.

Ashford, Diane Williams, Alice Brown and Chandra Cheeseborough make up a 4x100-meter relay team that could threaten East Germany's world record of 41.60 from the 1980 Olympics.

So many of the top performers in last week's U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships wanted to come here that coaches were forced to persuade some of them to go to the World University Games, instead, so that the U.S. would have a reasonable representation in Edmonton.

The East ice hockey team, which held its first practice this afternoon, includes New England high school students Brian Lawton, Tom Barrasso and Dave Jensen, all of whom were selected in the first round of the recent National Hockey League draft.

Lawton was the first player chosen, by the Minnesota North Stars. However, when the four sports festival coaches conducted a draft of the '80 Olympic candidates here, Lawton was not picked until third, behind two other centers, Scott Bjugstad of the University of Minnesota and Rich Costello of Providence College.

Defenseman Tony Kellin, a highly regarded 1982 draftee of the Washington Capitals, is playing for the North.

The four geographical breakdowns are frequently artificial, merely to promote some team unity annd increase the enthusiasm among the competitors. In sombo wrestling, for example, the men's 180.5-pound division includes Larry Corry (East) of Hayfield High and Old Dominion University; Brad Anderson (South) of Annandale and Old Dominion, and Jim Martin (West), a D.C. fireman who lives in Alexandria.

The biggest of the many ceremonies surrounding the festival is scheduled Friday night, when the official opening at Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium features Bob Hope, the 120-person Up With People group, 31 marching bands and 1,000 homing pigeons.

Torch bearers will be gymnast Scott Johnson, a local athlete who won seven medals at the 1982 National Sports Festival, and softball pitcher Kathy Arendsen, who has appeared in every festival.

The flame was lit atop Pikes Peak June 14 and has been carried to 56 Colorado cities by groups of runners.

Ninety-one athletes from the Washington, D.C., area are competing in the festival, with the largest contingents in men's track and field (13), sombo wrestling (11) and canoeing-kayaking (10).

Greg Louganis, the world's top diver, won another title tonight when he edged Mission Viejo teammate David Burgering by 22 points in three-meter springboard competition.

Louganis, in third place after four of the 11 final-round dives, hit a back 1 1/2-somersault with 2 1/2 twists for 74.76 points in the fifth round. He led the rest of the way, finishing with 680.19.