Worlds removed from Oliver North in substance, if only a few blocks in distance, pro and amateur athletes, television celebrities and corporate sponsors kicked off the 21st U.S. Youth Games yesterday at the Third Street Mall on the west side of the Capitol.

The news conference paid tribute to the 1,500 youths, aged 9 to 15, who will compete in the games, scheduled Aug. 3-9 at Gallaudet University. The youths represent cities mainly along the East Coast, including Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Columbia, S.C.

Athletes will compete in track and field events, swimming, tennis, bowling, volleyball and basketball.

Past participants in the games include pro basketball players Patrick Ewing, Adrian Dantley, Anthony Jones, Andrew Toney and Ennis Whatley, and collegiate players Sherman Douglas of Syracuse and Danny Ferry of Duke. Washington Bullets first-round pick Tyrone Bogues participated in the Youth Games with the Baltimore team.

Robin Campbell, a U.S. Olympic team member in the women's 800-meter relay in 1984, was also a Youth Games participant. She coaches the D.C. track team that will take part in the games.

A swimming gold medalist from the 1972 Olympics, Melissa Belote, a native Washingtonian, told the noonday crowd that there was "no better place to compete than right here, in front of the rest of the world."

Denver Nuggets forward Alex English said the Youth Games are especially important for young blacks. "We have missed out on this type of thing for so many years," he said. "It was so boring growing up. We got into trouble. We never had something like this to channel our energies into."

The games will serve that purpose, he said. "It'll give them something to do for the summer, something positive to do . . . not just for the neighborhood bragging rights, but for the nation's. It keeps them away from all those bad things."

Adrian Branch, a Los Angeles Laker and former University of Maryland star, who played in the games in 1978 and '79, was thinking of the youth not taking part in the games, and said they could be reached through caring.

"You outlove them. For as much as they do wrong, and try to be corrupt, you lead by example. You try to touch them with love," he said.

D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy said the participants could serve as role models for their peers and for adults, showing the benefits of treating their bodies with proper rest, nourishment and exercise.

Also present at the news conference were actresses Missy and Tracey Gold and swimmer Rowdy Gaines, a gold medalist in the 1984 Olympics.