This is, after all, the year before 1984, and we know about clones, genetic identification, in vitro fertilization and a sperm bank holding donations from Nobel prize winner William B. Shockley, who believes the world would be a better place by far if filled with little neo-Shockleys. The dancer Isadora Duncan once proposed as much to George Bernard Shaw, only to hear, "But what, my dear, if the poor child should have your brain and my body?"

As long as everyone else is tampering with the natural order of instinctive forces, it is small surprise that the world's best athletes are also tinkering with the machinery. Eight Pan American Games medal winners were disqualified this week after tests showed the presence of steroids in their bodies; 12 Americans beat it out of town before they could be tested. This could mean the 1984 Olympics may be won by real people eating Wheaties instead of by mutants puffed up chemically.

Steroids are an artificial facsimile of the male hormone testosterone. Because they rapidly build protein and therefore muscle, steroids routinely are prescribed for geriatrics and postoperative patients. Their use by healthy athletes, while not illegal if obtained by prescription, is a corruption of the drug in search of muscular power. This use is against the rules of major track and field organizations on grounds the drug is an artificial stimulant (with dangerous side-effects, including cancer) that distorts fair competition.

Yet estimates run to 90 percent when experts consider how many big-time track athletes use steroids. Apparently, testing runs behind the athletes' ability to mask the drug use. Some athletes disqualified at the Pan American Games competed last month at the World Games in Helsinki without incident. The difference was that the Pan Am testing is the most sophisticated available.

The sight of American athletes slouching toward home was melancholy on several levels.

First, the evacuation was all but an admission of guilt. The athletes said they were "confused" about the Pan Am testing, according to Roy Bergman, chief physician for the U.S. delegation, who told ABC-TV's "Nightline" they went home rather than risk a disqualification that would keep them out of the Olympics.

What's to be confused about? If they've used no steroids, none will show up on the test. The confusion seemed to be in the test's ability to detect steroids used maybe six months ago. The Helsinki tests, however, were unable to find steroids if use ended a month before. Yes, that difference might produce anxiety as well as confusion.

Second, the athletes' assumed violations speak darkly of the U.S. team's apparent willingness to bend the rules. Only innocents now would believe the U.S. bigwigs did not know of steroid use. To condone it if it is stopped in time to avoid detection is an abdication of responsibility.

It is now incumbent on the U.S. Olympic Committee to establish testing procedures year-around and kick out the violators.

Third, the steroid episodes brought Dr. Robert Kerr, a Los Angeles physician, into public view.

In 18 years, he estimates he has prescribed steroids for 10,000 athletes from baseball, football, basketball and track. He says 1 million athletes use steroids. By prescribing steroids and monitoring the effects, he says, he saves athletes from the dangers of a "dark alley black market" that sells veterinary-medicine steroids and suspect steroids imported from Europe.

"Abuse is rampant," Kerr said. So he has no qualms about prescribing drugs that violate athletic rules.

"We're talking about consenting adults here. They know the risks, they know that we don't know the long-term effects yet. But if we can provide laboratory monitoring, maybe we can prevent any effects . . . The danger in the current controversy is that these athletes will be mentioned with the NFL cocaine-users and be driven further underground."

Kerr was asked if sports shouldn't be a contest of athletes, man against man, instead of a man and his druggist against . . .

"This is not fantasyland," the doctor said. "People shouldn't smoke, they shouldn't drink alcohol, they shouldn't drive over the 55 mile per hour limit. But they will. Athletes will use steroids. The best I can do is provide some safety. To believe anything else is to believe there'll be no more wars. It's not real life."

Al Oerter won four Olympic gold medals throwing the discus from 1956 to '68. He says he never took a steroid until "experimenting a couple months in my 1976 comeback." He is convinced steroids do nothing to enhance performance. "It is a placebo effect. It just causes you to retain water and puff up. It is, almost, an excuse that you use to avoid the hard training necessary to build muscle density."

Hair loss, atrophy of the testes, reduced tolerance to cancer, liver dysfunction, sterility and impotence belong on a short list of steroids' suspected side-effects.

"Athletes will do it, anyway," Oerter said, "because the financial reward is worth the supposed short-term risk. They say a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics is worth a minimum of $50,000 and a maximum of $1.5 million.

". . . Dr. Kerr may believe he is helping people, but he has to 'fess up to his own contribution to the problems. Those problems are more pervasive than Dr. Kerr indicates.

"I go into gyms and see kids barely past puberty trying to buy steroids from the gym man. I see 14-year-olds all of a sudden puffing up. They're lifting weights above the ligaments' and tendons' capacity. And why? They've been taking it all in. They see a football player 6-feet-7 and 314 pounds knocking down 12 people at once. It's the kid's fantasy to get to that size and strength, and they know steroids are supposed to be the way."