In the dimly lit gym in an old D.C. school, the fans sat on broken benches and watched the diplomats wage war.


The volleyball rocketed off the fist of the Soviet Embassy's press officer, who happens to be a Master of Soviet Sport, over to a Brazilian consular official, who barely avoided having his head taken off.

The Soviet Union 10, Brazil 0.

It was the championship of the D.C. Recreation Department's embassy volleyball league, and the Soviet Union was defending the title it has held here since 1976.

"Everybody wants to beat the Russians," sighed one dishearted diplomat who diplomatically asked not to be identified. "But every time the Russians lose a game [in previous seasons], it seems as if they find a few new players who just happen to arrive from Moscow and can play volleyball."

The Russians import their players -- and they deny they do -- they don't particularly care about age. Among the stars of the team is 44-year-old Consul Y. R. Ponomarev, a grandfather, and another official who is 50 years old.

"We just play for sport." says Genadie Vasilenko, 39, the tall, handsome Master of Sport who narrowly missed making the 1964 Soviet Olympic volleyball team. "We just practice whenever we can. Everyone plays volleyball in the Soviet Union. It is maybe the most popular sport after soccer, basketball and hockey."

The Russians may "just play for sport" but they can practice in their very own gymnasium -- completed two months ago as part of the new Soviet Embassy compound under construction near Washington Cathedral. The team's spiffy red adidas T-shirts with white trim also help their invincible image.

On the court, with the air reeking of stale sweat, Vasilenko leaped high again. The Brazilians' faces mirrored horror as they frantically raced to the net to block another cannon shot.


Score: Soviet Union 15; Brazil 2. Game one to the Soviet Union.

"Look at the contrast," said one American who played on the State Department team that captured third place by beating the East German team earlier in the evening. "The Brazilians all strut around, cocking their hips for their girlfriends. Look at the tans and gold chains."

But the Russians, he said, are "all business. Hair short. No complaints about officiating. Of course, they dont't have to. They never lose a game."

Their league, organized by Anna Honabach of the recreation department, includes nine teams that play at the Duke Ellington School in Georgetown. But if the games are fiercely fought -- "everyone wants to win," Honabach says -- diplomacy rears its head at every opportunity.

"The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) just entered a team for the first time in a long time this year, she said. "When they played their first game, they came marching in together and shook everyone's hand." She paused, leaned forward conspiratorially, and smiled. "They even shook the custodian's hand, and, boy, was he surprised."

Earlier in the season, the State Department team played the Russians, and lost resoundingly. Traditionally, the State Department team captain invites the opponents across the street to his Georgetown home for drinks afterward.

This time he didn't.

"You could feel Afghanistan in the air," said one team member, who asked not to be identified. "It was nothing personal. Just another gesture in the diplomatic war."

But while diplomacy plays an important, if not always overt, role in the games, camaraderie is also there.

After the Tuesday night finals -- which were won, two games to none, by the Soviet team -- the Brazilians were invited back into a dingy locker room for a little liquid refreshment and a photo session for the handful of Russian fans who were there.

"Let's play a game of soccer," one Brazilian said to Vasilenko.

"Sure, it's a deal," he replied.

The Brazilian winked at a listener. "We'll get them this time," he said, grinning widely.