RALEIGH, N.C., JULY 17 -- The U.S. Olympic Festival officially got under way tonight with the opening ceremonies at Carter-Finley Stadium on the campus of North Carolina State University. The competition actully started Monday, but what's an Olympic-style event without marching bands, twirlers, card-flipping crowds and the march of the athletes?

This is the eighth festival, and, although the games have grown tremendously in scope and interest, the reason for their founding remains the same: to develop young athletes into Olympians.

The festivals have been held in non-Olympic years dating to 1978. The first, held in Colorado Springs, drew about a thousand spectators. Last year in Houston, 345,944 paid to watch the games, which brought $2.5 million to the local organizing committee, enabling it to break even. This year, local organizers have already sold nearly as many tickets.

John Naber, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming, spoke to the crowd of 52,700 and, in simple terms, explained why the U.S. Olympic Committee began the festivals.

"The real thrill doesn't just come from the opportunity of seeing only known champions," Naber said, "but from the fact that what they are seeing, for the first time, is a champion-to-be.

"One of the greatest opportunities our Olympic Festivals provide is the chance to see -- to actually take part in -- the making of tomorrow's champions. People who, two or three years from now, will be considered the best in the world. Those people, those champions-to-be, are sitting in the darkness out there right now -- right on the edge of the bright lights. A place once occupied by yesterday's champions, men and women whose names have a long since been proudly carved in the great history of sport."

The ceremonies began on a pleasant evening with the liftoff of five hot-air balloons, the oddest one being in the shape of a roll of film. A few moments later, slightly quicker aircraft -- four F-4 jets from Seymore-Johnson Air Force Base -- screamed by at about 1,000 feet. Later, the U.S. Army's Black Knights parachute team landed at the center of the field.

Mascots are inherently silly and, with three of them, it got very silly. With the fitness craze in mind, this festival's mascots were called the Fitness Bears -- Jump, Stretch and Flex.

A different sort of entertainment -- not that any more was really needed -- was provided by wandering minstrels, Roberta Flack and the Charlie Daniels Band.

One present and one former University of North Carolina athlete carried the torch around the field. April Heinrichs, a four-time all-America soccer player from Littleton, Colo., was joined by J.R. Reid, who will be a sophomore on the Tar Heels' basketball team next season.

"It's a great honor," said Reid, "especially since I was selected by the other athletes. I remember watching it being lit last year and thinking what a thrill it must be to do that."

The North team was the first to enter the stadium and two athletes held up a banner that read: "Ollie's North." It got mixed reviews, and probably wasn't appreciated by USOC officials, some of whom spent the morning talking about how sports are sometimes used as bargaining chips by politicians.

The main topic this morning at a USOC news conference with USOC President Robert Helmick was the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul: Will they be safe enough and what concessions will the International Olympic Committee and South Koreans have to give to the North Koreans to prevent their threatened boycott?

Asked if the IOC seemed to be giving up a lot without any guarantees, Helmick -- one of two U.S. representatives on the IOC executive board -- stressed the importance of an agreement.

"The IOC, like ourselves and the South Koreans," said Helmick, "would like to get an accord because it would be excellent for the Olympic movement to be able to break down barriers that couldn't be broken down through the political process. It is difficult to reach an agreement, and some of those possiblities have eroded. The president of the IOC expressed the sentiments of all of us that that is as far as we can go."

But is it really as far as the IOC will go?

"When I say final offer, it doesn't necessarily mean the door isn't open," Helmick said. "But as far as substantial changes, it is very difficult as we get closer to the games. There are tremendous logistical problems."

Helmick also discussed the growing number of professional athletes who are being allowed to compete in the Olympics. Tennis will be a medal sport in 1988 for the first time since 1924, and recently the IOC said that professional players would be able to participate under certain conditions.

Helmick said he and others will be looking at tennis closely to see if it should remain as an Olympic sport, but said there are no specific criteria in determining its success.

"It's sort of like pornography," Helmick said. "You'll know when you see it."

Competition in swimming, diving and wrestling was conducted this week to allow those athletes to compete elsewhere this summer. But Saturday will be the first full day of activity, with competition in 17 sports, including basketball, in which former Maryland coach Charles (Lefty) Driesell will coach his first game since his forced resignation last October.

There was competition in two sports today: diving and wrestling. In women's diving, Genna Weiss of Silver Spring, Md., finished second in the preliminaries, and, in men's diving, defending champion Greg Louganis easily won the preliminaries.