This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post, published here today and anticipating a conference at York St John University next week – the Inaugural Global Congress on Sport and Christianity:
It took me a while to work out just why my GP advised me to give up playing squash at the age of 42. I thought he was concerned about the impact of the sport on my heart; I actually think it was because I was beating him too often.
Nothing has ever taken the place of football or squash. One a team sport (in which my dreams outran my abilities); the other a singles competition (in which I just ran about a lot). I have tried running, but get bored. I went to the gym for several years, but got bored. I bought a rowing machine, but damaged my shoulder and couldn't use it. And I am saying nothing about Body Pump…
This is probably not the right time to be exercising the ghosts of fitness past – while at the time of writing the football season is kicking off and the Olympics are racing on. Visions of athletic perfection have me reaching for another beer while urging them on to ever greater physical and mental achievement. When I met Mo Farah in a BBC Radio 2 studio in July I had to resist asking him if he needed a good meal.
There was a time when I would have thought about sport simply in terms of individual prowess – of individual training, personal discipline and physical endurance. Contrary to many popular views of what it is to be a human being, we are actually a trinity of body, mind and spirit – all held in an inextricable unity.
Despite the deeply ingrained assumption in Greek thinking that body, mind and spirit can operate independently of each other, they all actually belong in a single unity. This is why it is such a nonsense to think that the great favourite watchword of postmodern individualism, 'spirituality', leads to the uncritical conclusion that religion or spiritual life should be shoved into a corner marked 'private' and kept in the dark (where it can't impinge on public life or threaten any disturbance to the social, economic or political status quo).
Which brings us back to sport.
Thinking today about sport has pushed me in a slightly broader direction. Biblical writers encourage Christians to be as disciplined in their discipleship of Jesus as athletes are in their singleminded training regimes – keeping their eye fixed on the ultimate goal and not the immediate pain or privations. But, the Christian vision also goes deeper. If you can't divide the body from the mind or spirit, then you can't separate the essence or importance of sport from the fabric of the rest of social life.
Society demands order. To put a long argument very briefly, social order needs white lines on a pitch in the same way as a game of tennis cannot be played on a moor. The particular rules might vary from game to game. The shape and nature of a pitch might look different depending on the nature of the sport being played: a football pitch looks different from a 110 metre hurdles track. But, what both require is parameters within which a game can be played and in which creativity can be deployed in the playing of it. What you can't have is a measurable game played by individuals who make up their own rules as they go or decide when and where they wish the white lines to be placed.
I realise this sounds obvious. But, we live in a culture where it is often assumed that any opinion is valid, any individual choice is equally apt, any personal preference is acceptable – regardless of the impact of these on the wider social order (or what is often called the common good). The point here is to assert that the white lines on the pitch are not constraints imposed in order to limit freedoms, but precisely the means of enabling a creative game to be played in the first place. If you don't believe me, ask Andy Murray to play a Wimbledon final in the middle of Roundhay Park or above the rocks on Ilkley Moor.
This is what I mean when I suggest that the power and fascination of sport transcends mere competition or competitiveness. It certainly transcends the power of celebrity from which it currently seems to take its financial fuel. The shaping and dynamics of sport – both individual and team – reflect deeply the fabric of human being and human society: we need order, common constraints, the creative opportunities that these parameters enable, and the commonly respected commitments that creating such a life acknowledges.
I see a Christian vision for society being reflected in the phenomenon of sport, in which mutual competitiveness aims at pushing the limits of both spectacle and potential whilst illustrating the necessary effectiveness of working with each other and for each other for a common goal. Both require the development of character and virtue as the end to which the training is merely the means. This is why drug abuse should be inherently shameful – shame not simply being an effect of having been found out.
Clearly, more can be said. But, as we sit in front of the telly, reaching for the beer and crisps, 'encouraging' the athletes to “run faster”, we might just consider what sport tells us not only about ourselves, but about our common life as a society – and what it is ultimately for.