Every October, an unassuming sport with a distinct international identity quietly commandeers the playing fields next to the Reflecting Pool and showcases some of the best field hockey talent in the world.

The 26th annual John F. Kennedy Memorial International Tournament will be held this weekend. Play begins at 8 a.m. today and Sunday and continues until approximately 5 p.m.

Sixteen men's and women's teams are grouped into sections of four, competing in a round-robin format today. The team with the best record in each group will advance to Sunday's semifinals. Consolation and championship games get underway at about 3.

This year's draw, one of the most competitive in the tournament's history, will include teams from Scotland, Nigeria, Jamaica, Canada, the Bahamas, the Soviet Union and Lithuania.

Both defending champions return this year. Lutch Watch Factory of Minsk is the reigning men's champion and the Taurus Sports Club of Lithuania is the defending women's champion.

In countries like Nigeria, Jamaica and the Soviet Union, some teams are sponsored entirely by companies. Workers have jobs in the factories and are coached by a full-time staff after work every day. Many players are members of their country's national team or are working toward it.

Since the tournament's beginning, it has been possible to chart the progress of the game's international appeal. Through the early 1980s, India and Pakistan fiercely dueled for supremacy. Then the Nigerians began cultivating the sport at home and the El Kanemi Flickers of Lagos, Nigeria, participating here again this year, won twice in the 1980s. One championship was a battle with India.

Teams from the Soviet Union came on strong last year and brought with them their own rivalry. In an emotional moment, the women from Lithuania unfurled their nation's flag, an unheard-of act prior to glasnost. Members of the Soviet Embassy congratulated the Minsk team, but conspicuously avoided the Lithuanians.