The U.S. Olympic Festival is not the Olympics. It's also not the Goodwill Games. Now that that's out of the way, it's important to ask, "What is the Olympic Festival anyway?"

Every year except Olympic years, it provides prospective Olympians with an opportunity to dream Olympic-sized dreams. It also gives the U.S. Olympic Committee and local organizers a public forum for publicity and corporate sponsorship.

This year the festival is being held in Minneapolis and St. Paul, beginning tonight with opening ceremonies at the Metrodome. It runs through July 15.

In all, 3,500 athletes will compete in 37 Olympic and Pan American games sports, from archery to yachting. The festival is populated largely by those hopeful future Olympians -- combined with a few veterans. This is the 10th festival held by the USOC since the initial event in 1978.

"They say that in Minnesota people are more interested in this than in the Super Bowl coming there in 1992," said USOC Executive Director Harvey Schiller. "They're having a torch run in the state and getting the schools involved with the festival. It's a tremendous local event."

The festival almost gets lost on an international sports calendar filled to the brim with the World Cup, the Goodwill Games in Seattle, world championships in many sports, the Pan American Games and the 1992 Winter and Summer Olympics.

Schiller acknowledges it's not the biggest of events, but there's nothing wrong with that, he said.

"Several dramatic things have come out of the festival," he said. "There has been the development of unique facilities. You don't normally find velodromes {cycling facilities} in cities like Indianapolis, Minneapolis or Oklahoma City. There are natatoriums {swimming facilities} in other cities, built because of the festival. These things leave lasting impressions on cities."

Minnesota festival president Jack Kelly also doesn't like the notion that the Goodwill Games took athletes and interest from his event.

"The focus is always that the Goodwill Games wants the best athletes right now and the festival says we are building for the future and we want a maximum number of future Olympians," he said. "I don't think the two events are necessarily incompatible at all."

"The perception of the public may be personality chasing, but that doesn't matter to the participants," Schiller said. "To the kids and families involved, this is a big event."

One of the things that matters to the USOC is money, and the festival works wonders that way.

"To international and national sponsors, it gives them a regional outlet," Schiller said. "We've got Coca-Cola on a larger scale, but then there are the Coca-Cola bottlers in Minnesota, and they like to get involved in things like this. This gives our sponsors a tremendous outlet."

Perhaps the biggest name expected is that of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympic gold medalist in the heptathlon and long jump. She will not be competing in either of those events, however; she will run on the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relay teams for the North squad. (Teams are split regionally: North, East, South and West.) She also is expected to participate as an exhibition athlete in the high jump and javelin to prepare for the heptathlon at the Goodwill Games.

Others expected to attend are Hollis Conway, who set the U.S. high jump record at the 1989 Olympic Festival; Olympic divers Wendy Lucero and Wendy Williams; and gymnast Brandy Johnson, another former Olympian.

Most of the other participants will be unknown to most of the nation. But that might change. More than 73 percent of the 1984 and 1988 U.S. Olympic teams comprised athletes who competed in a sports festival. At the 1981 festival, figure skater Scott Hamilton and gymnast Mary Lou Retton starred. In 1983, sprinters Evelyn Ashford and Calvin Smith broke the 100-meter world records in one incredible half-hour. Two years later, Danny Manning, Pervis Ellison and Danny Ferry competed in basketball, and Debi Thomas stole the show in figure skating.

"People say there are other sports going on, this and that," Schiller said. "People talk about the World Cup. Well, all that's fine, but this is an American festival, and a very good one too."