Inexorably, albeit with the breakneck speed of a glacier, the best athletes in the world are being allowed to compete in the Olympics. Some enlightened time, the Games may truly be open.

They are quite close now, what with arrangements that allow track and field athletes, skiers and hockey players, among others, to earn six-figure incomes each year and still remain eligible for competition in the global playpen.

As you may have sensed, the Olympics are that rare body in which one can be partially pregnant. As long as the money earned does not go directly into an athlete's pocket, it's okay for him to go for it.

John McEnroe will be a U.S. Olympian. Wayne Gretzky could play for Canada, if he and his NHL team so chose. If Olympic figure skaters are purely amateur, what they often seem to be competing for -- prominent spots in ice shows -- are not.

If the Summer Games schedule had fitted their time frames, such NFL players as the Redskins' Darrell Green might have tried for positions on the U.S. Olympic teams.

As matters now stand, professionals in another sport, such as football, may compete in track and field. Very likely, Green's considerable income as a pro football player is not as much as "amateur" runners Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson earn.

The International Olympic Committee allows each sports federation to determine its eligibility rules. The federations pretty much allow whatever will get the U.S. and Soviet-bloc athletes together.

"Over the years," said one official long acquainted with the history of Olympic sport, "I've seen an amazing change in the attitudes of people. It boils down to this: M-O-N-E-Y."

In slightly more than a decade, liberalized rules and keen interest in the Olympics have generated a staggering amount of money. For U.S. teams, for U.S. athletes.

The U.S. Olympic ski team boasts 33 sponsors in various degrees of subsidization, ranging downward from Subaru. For the athletes, the deals are a bit more complicated.

According to a former ski official, selected U.S. athletes are guaranteed a base amount of money from sponsors. This might be $50,000. The major money comes from incentives for winning a medal, which could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is why Phil and Steve Mahre combined their skills in Olympic and World Cup competition to earn nearly $1 million during at least one year of their careers.

The euphemism in skiing is the "victory schedule." The winner stands at the foot of the mountain, propped against the skis that got him down so quickly, the label turned directly toward television and wire service cameras.

The caption there should be the one that dominated a bank sign hit by the baseball Hank Aaron propelled out of the park on his record-setting 715th home run: "Think of it as Money." The fist upraised in victory soon will be filled with cash.

Trouble is, accepting money tends to put an inordinate amount of pressure on athletes to win. Sponsors are said to have been a bit tepid about underwriting the U.S. ski team this Olympics because it is not expected to do well.

Without a U.S. medal winner there are few promotional pictures for the sponsor. And only a manufacturer's label may appear on uniforms and equipment during the Games.

At one point, the tennis federation was going to eliminate competitors such as McEnroe from accepting money during the so-called Olympic period. Because the U.S. Open comes in this time, that idea was netted.

The major restriction now is not being paid for endorsements during this period. One assumes McEnroe and the others simply will operate on, say, 11-month contracts that pay the same as 12.

With so many teams and athletes gobbling up a good deal of this recently available money, the United States has found a way to compete with the government-subsidized Soviets and East Germans.

There still is considerable debate among U.S. and IOC officials about the notion of commercialization and open Games. The idea of competing for nothing more than the competition is noble, but also elitist.

Allowing U.S. athletes to take advantage of the U.S. free enterprise system tends to equalize the East vs. West competition.

For the most part, accepting money is permissible so long as a second party, usually the sport's national governing body, acts as a go-between. In athletics, money earned by U.S. performers is placed in a trust. Training expenses can be drawn by the athlete, who receives the rest upon retirement.

Among the pertinent questions in this debate about open games are these: Will the medal count be drastically altered? Will open Games create an imbalance in the competition? I think not.

The same countries will dominate sports in which they traditionally have been strong, no matter what the system. Athletes who could be helped are U.S. boxers and the Canadian hockey team.

Mainly, interest in a sport in a particular country determines how well that country does in the Olympics. The Cubans excel in boxing, the Soviet-bloc countries in athletics, the Austrians in skiing, the United States in basketball, Mexico in race-walking.

Because our basketball players are so skilled, and interest here so intense, we have pro leagues. We would only dominate internationally even more if the international basketball federation gets its way and permits open professionals in the 1992 Olympics.

The federation argues: Why not be honest and aboveboard? Why not give the U.S. professionals a chance at the Games, if they choose? A reasonable argument.

Probably, international federation officials imagine much more television money if the likes of Michael Jordan could be coaxed into more than one Olympics. U.S. thinkers agree, to a point.

What happens, they argue, when the Jordan-led U.S. team wins its first Olympic game by 75 points and its second by 83? Will not the television cameras be pointed elsewhere from there on? Stay tuned.