This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It's been an interesting couple of weeks, hasn't it? I never thought I'd be interested in people riding bikes around a track, but I got drawn into the Rio velodrome. There is a massive upsurge in pride in the flag the athletes carry, even if some of the national anthems do go on a bit.

Maybe it was while the world's attention was on Rio that a North Korean diplomat chose to shine a different light on national pride by defecting to South Korea last week. Later described as “human scum” by his old regime, Thae Young Ho had managed to escape with his family from the North Korean embassy in Watford before his defection had been noticed by his erstwhile masters.

This is interesting stuff. At the same time I saw this in the news I also heard about a guy who couldn't get into his national Olympic team, so joined that of a different country.

So, where does loyalty lie? And what, when we celebrate loyalty to Great Britain in Rio, does that loyalty actually mean?

The reality is that most of us live for most of the time with multiple loyalties. Just watch the battle on social media between Lancashire and Yorkshire over which county has done better than the other in Brazil. When does loyalty to Yorkshire trump fidelity to the nation? Or when does my commitment to my family or myself take priority over that devoted to the wider community? I come from Liverpool, but live in Yorkshire – I just have to deal with it. But, there is a serious point about where we draw the lines and where the lines need to be crossed.

The truth is that we live all the time with a complex hierarchy of loyalties: to oneself, to family, to community, to religion, to nation and to the world. The North Korean defector clearly decided that the balance of these priorities had changed. Yet, his experience also illustrates that in real life we sometimes have to live for a time with commitments that are conflicted – or that, for various pragmatic reasons, we hold a line with our voice when our head and our heart have moved elsewhere.

I have been wondering how to express this, and kept coming back to the lawyers trying to compromise Jesus over the conflict between his commitment to Israel and that demanded from the Roman Empire in the form of taxes. His reply: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's” was not a cop-out. It crystallised the conundrum. It made clear that those who claim a commitment to God in any way have to evidence that commitment in the choices they make and the ethical priorities they live to.

So, within the hierarchy of loyalties, raising a flag actually raises as many questions as it answers.

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.


This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

Call me biased, but this season has to be the best for football fans everywhere. I lived in Leicester for nine years in the 1990s, so am really pleased to see the Premier League tables looking a little bit upside-down. And I say that as a convinced Kloppite.

There is no shortage of aphorisms about sport in general and football in particular. But, and I feel this might be almost blasphemous, Bill Shankly was wrong when he claimed that football was more important than matters of life and death. Of course, in his day sport wasn't quite the big business it is today.

And perhaps that is where the challenge lies.

In the last few months we have seen a crisis in world athletics over doping. The high-earning tennis player Maria Sharapova has had to step back and has now lost a number of lucrative sponsorship deals. And now we see allegations – albeit strongly denied – about further doping in major sports, including Premiership football.

It seems to me that there are two problems here. The doping is one thing, but the real issue is the duping. I don't think anyone would disagree with the notion that to win by cheating – whatever form that cheating takes – is always a failure. Yet, the real problem is not what the Bible calls “the prospering of the wicked”, but, rather, the wickedness of those who prosper. It is the duping rather than the doping that causes the ultimate offence.

We teach our children not to lie or deceive – as moral goods in themselves – and that is surely right. But, then we and they end up watching their role models, particularly on the football pitch, diving and dying on the grass. So, we should surely be more concerned about character and integrity than lost sponsorship deals, and see sportsmen and women more embarrassed about shame than about illicit points gained or deals lost.

Now, I realise that there are other dimensions to this whole business. Sport is never simply about winning or losing. And I have a certain sympathy for those who take allowable drugs one day, only to find that what was legal then is now deemed illicit today. Again, if the moral complaint has to do only with inequity on the part of those competing, then what do we do about those imbalances and unfairnesses inherent to sport anyway? For example, leaving drugs aside, those individuals or teams with the most money at their disposal will always have the best support and resourcing – the rich are inevitably advantaged over those who are more poorly funded.

Well, one American sportsman once said that “sports do not build character; they reveal it.” No surprise then that in theological circles character ethics are de rigeur these days. Sport might want to take a look at some very old ethics for a not-so-new world? Character matters more than charisma or a cabinet of medals.

There is something uniquely British about moaning. We are sceptics. As George Orwell once suggested, the reason no one ever goose-stepped down English streets is simply that everybody would laugh. There is a sense of distance that you don't see in the 'we-are-the-greatest-nation-on-earth-and-can-do-anything' USA.

Perhaps we are temperamentally 'glass half empty' nations rather than natural 'can do' optimists.

And maybe that has something to do with our climate, it's changeability engendering an innate caution that whatever we an might get stuffed by the weather.

Or, maybe it has to do with a mature recognition from our history that any glimpse of greatness is always temporary – that empires come and go and that they often appear in retrospect to be less great than our rhetoric or transient glory seduced us into believing.

Anyway, we can only hope that for the next couple of weeks the media might be sidetracked from looking for all the holes (of which there will be many – but when did the commentariat last organise anything for which they would be held eternally accountable?) and celebrate the once-in-a-lifetime communal party of pride that will be the 30th Olympiad.

Jonathan Freedland hits the right buttons in this morning's Guardian. I might not get to see huge amounts of sport during the next couple of weeks, but I feel proud of what has been achieved in even getting to this point.

Yes, seconds after the closing ceremony the commentariat will start to question everything – and the 'legacy' questions will need to be asked – but I hope we might first celebrate before we criticise.