The two muscular athletes wrestling on the mat of Gallaudet University's gym were separated by miles of political theory, but united by a single physical trait.

One was an American, one a Soviet and both were deaf, as were most of the nearly 100 persons watching the competition in the 1990 Friendship Games.

Co-sponsored by Gallaudet and the American Athletic Association for the Deaf (AAAD), the Games have brought deaf athletes from the Soviet Union and Canada to Gallaudet for three days of competition -- in track and field, wrestling, basketball and volleyball -- against the United States. Most of the championships of this, the inaugural event, will be decided today.

According to its organizers, the Games were created to give deaf Soviet and American athletes a chance to compete against each other in years other than the World Games for the Deaf, which are held every four years.

The last time deaf Soviet athletes competed in the United States was at the 1965 World Games in Washington. Last year the World Games were held in New Zealand.

"We didn't want our athletes to have to wait another four years to compete internationally," said Donalda Ammons, the Games' coordinator.

Ammons began negotiations with Valery Rukhledev of the Soviet Union in 1987. The deal they cut sent American teams to the USSR in 1987 and 1989, and it was agreed that the Soviets would come here for the Friendship Games. Canada was invited later.

"We're rivals in competition, but once we get off the mat or the field, we're friends," said Ammons. "There is a special bond between the athletes of each country, and that bond is deafness."

Since there is no federal funding of the Friendship Games, Ammons and Rukhledev scrambled to get enough money. But it was easier than they thought. Not only were the Soviets able to make the trip, but each Soviet athlete received $100 spending money for the week-long visit. The money was donated by deaf people across the United States.

Part of Thursday's track and field schedule was suspended because of "unbearable heat," said Ammons. But one Soviet athlete didn't seem to mind the 100-degree weather.

"I never complain about the weather," said pole vaulter Mikhail Alessin, 30. "I don't want to have any loopholes, any excuses. I want to have good competition with the Americans regardless of the weather."

Then there's the social side.

"It was great to show them the fireworks show," said Anthony Jones, 20, a Gallaudet student and member of the U.S. basketball team. "They were thrilled. And they were interested in learning the history of our country and our independence."