Charles Lakes grew up in a white environment in a white sport and idolized white people like 1984 Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord. "I haven't had any problems with that, so people don't usually think of me as being black in the sense that I'm not into black pride and separating myself out," Lakes says, "but I do feel a responsiblity for the way a lot of young black children do look up to me.

"I'm trying to be a role model for them, and I am, whether I like it or not."That Lakes is black is an issue now because he could very easily be the first black American gymnast to ever perform in the Olympics. He'll find out tonight if that's in his future.

Ron Gallimore was a member of the 1980 American team but never competed in the Olympics because of the boycott of the Moscow Games.

Lakes probably needs only to avoid disaster tonight to become a member of the 1988 team that will compete in Seoul next month. He is the overall leader through the first two rounds of the qualifying process and had the best all-around round of anybody Wednesday night in the compulsory phase of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in the Salt Palace.

The optional round - the final step in becoming an Olympian - is tonight in the Salt Palace starting at 7:30.

The women's optionals are Saturday starting at 12:45 p.m.

Lakes says he was disappointed at the way black figure skater Debi Thomas handled the issue during the Winter Olympics, saying she felt little responsiblity to be a role model to black youngsters. "If she says something like that, it sort of dashes their hopes."

Because he feels strongly about responsibility, Lakes has begun working with kids in minority-area high schools and is coaching a youngster in Santa Monica, Calif. Lakes has helped him to replace drugs with gymnastics. "You'll probably see him on the 1992 Olympic team," Lakes predicts.

Lakes, 23, has never won a major senior national or international meet but was second at the 1987 Championships of the USA. In 1988, he was third, and that's where he stood coming into the Olympic trials, but an all-around score of 58.10 Wednesday in the compulsory phase of the trials moved him into the overall lead with only tonight left.

Lakes' overall adjusted total, counting 40 percent of the Houston meet score (the trials count 60 percent), is 81.26.

Scott Johnson, the 1984 Olympian who entered the trials by injury petition, scored 58.0 Wednesday and ranks second although he has no qualifying-meet score. Because he didn't participate in the qualifier, Johnson, and any of the four others who petitioned in by injury, including '84 Olympian Tim Daggett, must finish in the top four tonight to make the Olympic team. The other 18 comptetitors are shooting for the top six.

Dan Hayden, who won the Championships of the USA and was the leader prior to Wednesday's competition, suffered through a sub-par floor exercise compulsory and dropped to second in adjusted scoring for both meets and third behind Johnson. His compulsory total was 57.15 and his overall adjusted score is 81.03. Kevin Davis, who also had floor exercise problems, is just behind Hayden at 56.750 and 80.55.

Others in the hunt, in order of their standing, include Dominick Minicucci, Wes Suter, Dennis Hayden, Lance Ringnald, Daggett, Bill Paul, Tom Schlesinger and Curtis Holdsworth.

Lakes says that as long as he qualifies for the Olympic team, where he finishes tonight "doesn't mean anything."

But, he adds, "I want to beat Scotty and Dan and everybody.

"I watch those other guys warm up," says Lakes, "and I think I'm going to be last. I'm always the most surprised guy when the results are in and I'm on top."

He predicts nothing for tonight, saying only that he'll try to control his urge to go for the ultimate crowd-pleasing stunts and do his routines the way he's practiced them. That's spectacular enough for most people. "If I tried to do something new, I might get into trouble, but I don't think I'll have that problem," he says.

"But it's the type of sport that anything can happen. If it was track, where you run down and bust for the tape, I could say, `OK, I'm going to do it; I feel very fast today."'

But it isn't track, and he wouldn't be a role model if it was.