Following the 1976 Olympics, the U.S. Olympic Committee concluded that many of the nation's developing athletes were ill-prepared to compete in a highly pressurized atmosphere. So it started the National Sports Festival, now the U.S. Olympic Festival, to help ease that problem.

"We want to provide a pre-Olympic experience that will help prepare the athletes for, ultimately, the Olympics," said Sheila Walker, the USOC director of the Olympic festival and competition.

The event is held each year except the Olympic year.

This year's festival, to be held in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, starts today. The festival opens with the first of six days of wrestling, which, along with swimming and diving, begins before Friday's opening ceremonies to accommodate national team trials that are shortly after the festival.

The rest of the 34 Olympic sports are scheduled between Friday and the closing ceremonies July 26.

"It's an opportunity unlike the other events the athletes go to where it's only their sport," said Walker. "There are few opportunities for them to participate in a multisport event."

While the governing body of each sport determines the criteria by which its athletes are chosen for this event, once chosen, the athletes are divided into four teams -- East, West, North and South -- by the festival coaches.

The talent level varies each year, generally rising the year prior to the Olympics. The USOC says 193 of the United States' 287 medal winners in the 1984 Summer Olympics had participated in the Olympic Festival the year before. And since this year's festival precedes an Olympics thus far unaffected by boycotts, its importance is considered even greater.

Thirty-eight area athletes will be among the more than 3,000 athletes participating this year. The largest local contingents are in track and field (19), canoe/kayak (10) and soccer (15).

Some of the more notable local participants include former University of Maryland basketball Coach Lefty Driesell, head coach of the men's East team; boxer Anthony Suggs of Alexandria, a Golden Gloves silver medalist at 132 pounds; C-1 (one-man) canoeists Will, Blaise and Jenny Rhodes of Berwyn Heights, Md.; Genna Weiss of Silver Spring, the youngest diving competitor at 15; former national modern pentathlon champion Rob Stull and his younger brother Doug, of Damascus, and nearly all the George Mason University women's soccer team, including national team player Lisa Gmitter.