SEOUL, South Korea (AP) _ This is not a story about beer.

Forget about it right now. No mention of beer, hops or brewski. You might think there would be because of the subject of this story. Bowling. Olympic bowling.

Sure, snigger if you want. Say bowling isn't in the same, well, league with other Olympic sports like badminton or synchronized swimming. But the fact is this year it is. Almost.

For the first time since the 1936 Berlin Games, bowling is in the Olympics as an exhibition sport. Exhibition sports rank below demonstration sports which rank below medal sports.

But that doesn't lessen the honor for U.S. keglers Mark Lewis and Debbie McMullen who represent not only the United States, but the continents of North and South America as well.

''This is an absolute thrill,'' said McMullen, a 27-year-old bowling center employee from Denver. ''I got to march in the opening parade and when people were shouting 'USA' it just brought tears to my eyes.''

Lewis, a 33-year-old McDonald's manager from Wichita, Kan., is more experienced in the foreign arena. He's been in international competition for years.

That's right, international competition. Bowling is not just an American sport. It's big in Finland and Sweden, Japan and Germany. Korea appears to be nuts for the game, judging from the number of giant bowling pins on roof tops that mark the bowling alleys.

Some 100 million people around the world bowl, according to Roger Tessman, president of Federation Internationale Des Quilleurs. Loosely translated, that's the international federation of bowlers.

''The only sport bigger is soccer,'' said Tessman, of Greendale, Wis.

The two Americans earned their place in the round-robin tournament by winning their respective preliminaries last month in Florida against competitors from the Americas.

Although bowlers had hoped for Olympic games pitting country against country, officials said it would take too long and limited the competition to the top players from three zones, the Americas, Europe and Asia.

The Olympic committee was so stingy with the time allotted to bowling that the 12 men and 12 women competitors must squeeze their opening ceremonies, initial competition, finals and medal presentations into nine hours.

Despite the stepchild's treatment at Seoul and the initially cool reception the bowlers are facing to get into the 1992 Games in Barcelona, they are hopeful bowling will someday become an Olympic medal sport.

''We must do everything we can to get into the Olympics and we will succeed,'' said Gerth Bettnger, a German bowling official and coach of West Germany's Wolfgang Strupf, a 23-year-old competitor from Munich.

Lewis, a slim, intense competitor who threw strike after strike at a practice session, spends 25 hours a week at his bowling, practicing, working out with weights and squeezing a tennis ball to improve arm and wrist strength.

''People make fun of bowling, but it's really not much different than something like archery,'' he said. ''You have to aim accurately at a target 60-feet away and hit it with a 16-pound ball.''

Lewis has spent most of his life in bowling competition, so it's understandable that he is a little annoyed when he is asked the beer question.

''No,'' he says after a long silence. ''I don't think I've ever had a beer when I was bowling.''

His coach, Bob Mills of Chicago, bristles at the suggestion that serious competitors drink. Do people think pro golfers drink because of the casual duffer's dalliance on the 19th hole? he asks.

''It's a stigma on the sport that has nothing to do with it at this level competition,'' he said. ''At this level of bowling, forget the beer.''