For Washington's resident diplomatic corps this is the time of year when volleyball seems to become, to paraphrase a diplomatic adage, an example of politics waged by other means.

Last year the annual Embassy Volleyball League tournament was marred by a major contretemps when the Soviet team, league champions since 1976, tried to slip in two ringers who were amateur stars back home just before their final playoff with Brazil. Brazil protested, the D.C. Department of Recreation, organizer of the tournament, was forced to mediate, and the players were withdrawn. The Soviets still won.

This year, it was the Soviets' turn to complain. During their second contest of the season with the State Department last week, they discovered that one of the American players had been replaced by a ringer whose name was not on the official roster.

At first, the Soviets didn't say anything, and even took it in stride that George J. Sajewych, 36, is fluent in Russian and works for the Ukrainian services of the Voice of America. But on the court, they found out that Sajewych plays smacking great volleyball as he helped his team win and knock the Soviets out of a tie for first place in the league.

The Soviets protested, and things got a little nasty in the locker room when one team member called Sajewych, who is of Ukrainian heritage, "a traitor to the homeland." They also threatened to go to the press and to ask their ambassador to make an official protest to the State Department unless the game was disqualified, according to an American player.

In the end, the dispute was handled diplomatically. The American and Russian team captains sat down with referee Brad Lampshire and Anna E. Honabach, a recreation department official, and negotiated around a table.

The Soviets were within their rights, said Honabach, because Sajewych's name was not written on the official roster. She disqualified the game, leaving the Soviets once again neck-and-neck with the Brazilians for the league championship game that will be played at the end of the present tournament.

"It's really hard to be neutral sometimes, but to succeed you've just got to be," Honabach said.

The Americans said it was an innocent mistake and that they had announced the change verbally before the game began. "They only complained (about Sajewych) after they lost," harrumphed one State Department player. "It's easy to play as good as they do when you've got a court right in your chancery," groused another." These guys will do anything to win," sniffed another as a faint odor of sour grapes seemed to mix with the scent of body sweat in the gym of Georgetown's Duke Ellington High School one night this week.

The two teams will meet again Tuesday in the second stage of the tournament. Sajewych, now officially on the roster, will be on the American team.

"Everyone wants to beat the Russians--I mean the Soviets, I must remember to call them Soviets," said Honabach."But I have to give the Soviets credit, they are very polite and they do everything just like they're supposed to. They get their rosters in on time, they show up on time for the games."

Meanwhile, tension is building for next Tuesday's superpower match, which is after all only a game. But then, so is diplomacy.