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British Ambassador Jonathan Knott with Hungarian Olympic champion swimmer Éva Risztov at the cross-Balaton swim | British Embassy

The sporting ambassador

Each issue of Diplomacy & Trade presents a piece by one of the ambassadors serving in Budapest. Recently, it has been the turn of the British ambassador who tells the readers about his love for sports and how he can pursue this activity in Hungary.

Everyone needs something outside work to keep them sane. For my father, it was music: he was a composer and a musician and later in life a semi-professional sound recordist.  Alas, I inherited none of his musical skills.  Though, I enjoy music, I have no talent for it: my ear is good enough to know how badly I play.  Happily, though, I have found a different release in sports.

The sports I practise have evolved as I’ve aged.  From the physicality of rugby and rowing, I moved into the more genteel golf and tennis.  And here in Hungary, I’ve re-discovered old sporting loves and made a few new ones.

Cross-Balaton swim

One of my old passions was swimming.  I hadn’t done much swimming since I’d been at school.  But the idea of the ‘Balaton átúszás’ really caught my imagination and in 2013, guided by a new friend, the great Éva Risztov (the winner of the women’s 10-kilometer open water swim race at the 2012 London Olympics), I spent a couple of months training for it and did the swim - in 2 hours and 4 minutes.  Something I’m very proud of.  It was a fantastic day.  I loved the camaraderie and the festival atmosphere around the event.  Even on the water, there was a party feel as we made our way across to the sound of people cheering us on.

Having become a regular at the Komjádi pool, I then branched into water polo.  A friend of mine organises friendly training sessions / games for older players and invited me to come along. I love the sport – its athleticism, physicality and psychology.  My appreciation of the game and those who play it is immeasurably deeper now that I’ve played a little - and found how difficult it is to control the ball while two other people try to take it from you as you tread water.  I’ll never be a good player, but I’m an enthusiastic one!  And I really enjoyed watching the European Championships last summer, even if the result in the final wasn’t as I’d hoped.

GB United

The other passion I’ve rediscovered is for playing football.  I’d messed around with football as I grew up.  But until I arrived in Budapest had pretty much given up the idea of playing.  Supporting West Ham was about as exciting a footballing experience as I’d had.  But the interest there is here for futsal gave me an idea: why not organise a British team? We had some sportsmen (and women) in the Embassy and a good British community in Hungary.  Wouldn’t it be good to have a GB football team? So, we’ve formed one.  And we’ve played games against local teams. Some of which have been much more serious and skilled than us (like the trainers’ team at Videoton), but others we’ve given a better game.

The highlight, so far, of my football experience, though, was leading GB United against a team from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (led by State Secretary Kohut) this past December.  We arranged the game to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Christmas truce in 1914, a moment when the ordinary soldiers came out of their trenches to celebrate Christmas together and kick a ball around. It must have been a magic moment at a time of such tragedy and desolation, a moment when humanity won out over hostility – something to commemorate and celebrate.  And, in our own modest way, that’s what we did.  And no, on this occasion Hungary did not wipe the floor with GB: it was a 4-4 draw!

Language and cuisine

I’ve been in Hungary for 3 years now.  Before I arrived, I was told I needed to speak Hungarian to understand the country and people properly. I studied Hungarian. When I arrived here, work contacts and new friends told me I needed properly to understand Hungarian history to get under the skin of the country. I read books and attended lectures.  Then, I was told that it was Hungary’s kitchen and wines which were the key to appreciating life here.  And I’ve done my best to eat and drink well.  But, for me, the greatest insights and greatest fun I’ve had in my time in Hungary so far have been in the sports arena.  When you play a sport and or compete with people you share something. You share rules and values. You create special relationships. You understand each other so much better because you have shared sets of experiences. Whatever barriers there were before a game, disappear after it.  I suppose there’s a message there about the UK and Hungary being partners in the EU and sharing its rules and values. But that message is for another time. Right now, I’d just like to salute all those I’ve practised sport with over the last three years and thank them for introducing me to the real Hungary.

Jonathan Knott

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