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The Flying Dartsmen

“Steve Beaton -- The Adonis of darts, what poise, what elegance -- a true roman gladiator with plenty of hair wax.”

Most pubs in the world have the necessary equipment. You don’t need to be big, or strong, or fast to play the game. It doesn’t discriminate by race or class. It’s played on every continent on Earth.

So why isn’t darts an Olympic sport yet? In fact, outside the UK and The Netherlands, there are only a handful of professional darts players. What gives, people?

OK, I know why darts isn’t an Olympic sport. It’s already been mentioned. Granted, Olympic events like archery and shooting don’t require much in the way of athletic ability either, but they don’t come loaded with the historical baggage that accompanies darts, known to the cognoscenti as ‘arrows’ (pronounced ah-rahs).

Steve Beaton

Darts is, of course, a game for drinkers. Popular in British hostelries since a barman first realised that indoor archery wasn’t the smartest idea, even at its professional pinnacle, the game can’t shake its association with the booze. Sid Waddell, the voice of darts, Cambridge University graduate and arguably the greatest sports caster working in the English language today, accepts that some things will never change.

Players like Alan Evans and Leighton Rees in the 1970s -- they liked a drink, but when it came to darts it was serious business. Some of these guys had an industrial intake of beer. A lot of them thought they had to have a beer. Leighton was the epitome of that. He used to practice before the game with four pints of lager, have a couple of large brandies, then maybe drink three pints of lager while he was playing. Jocky Wilson was even beyond that. On some of the best games I saw him play over the years he’d had at least six pints of lager and half a bottle of vodka down him. These were televised games. You can get the player out of the pub but you can’t get the pub out of the player.

Today the alcohol is still there but it’s more like the salt in sumo. It’s protocol. [13-time World Champion] Phil Taylor might have a brown ale or a glass of white wine. James Wade drinks vodka red bull. When we’re on commercial breaks they can have a sip. But there’s not many that would have more than three pints practice and two during the game. The prize money is £600,000 here.

The Wit and Wisdom of Sid Waddell

Famous for his unique mangling of the English language, there’s no other broadcaster like Sid: the darts poet. Here’s just a selection of his greatest hits.

“Priestly - eyes bulging like the belly of a hungry chaffinch!”

“The players are under so much duress, it's like duressic park out there!”

“The atmosphere’s so tense, if Elvis walked in here with a portion of chips you could hear the vinegar sizzle on them.”

“Keith Deller's not just an underdog, he's an underpuppy!”

“Steve Beaton -- The Adonis of darts, what poise, what elegance -- a true roman gladiator with plenty of hair wax.”

“Steve Beaton, he's not Adonis, he's the donis”

“They won't just have to play outta their skin to beat Phil Taylor. They'll have to play outta their essence!”

"It's like watching a one-legged ostrich trying to lay an egg.... on a crutch!"

And, the classic, “There's only one word for that: magic darts!”

The ‘here’ in question is the PDC World Championships at London’s Alexandra Palace. Held over the Holiday season every year, it’s the NCAA Basketball Tournament of darts: 64 of the finest players in the world in a straight knockout. Few events draw competitors from further afield. In the first round matches we watch a Bahamian beat Japan’s finest darter and a Czech player with a fearsome mullet wipe the floor with a taxi driver from the Philippines, despite miscounting his finishes on multiple occasions.

The game has come a long way since it first emerged on British TV in the early '70s. Viewed a game for those too lazy or thirsty to compete at anything else, the fledgling sport received a hammer blow when mercilessly parodied on the hit comedy show Not The Nine O’Clock News with an often-repeated sketch portraying darts as a straight drinking contest, pitting the champ ‘Fatbelly’ against the challenger, ‘Evenfatterbelly’.

And so the game retreated back to the pubs from which it emerged. The sport’s governing body, the British Darts Organisation (BDO), focussed on the grass roots game. Great in theory, but for the handful of professional players for whom darts was their livelihood, the sport’s gradual disappearance from TV screens during the late '80s was a disaster. They formed a rival organisation, the Professional Darts Council (PDC) and started their own circuit and world championship in 1994 taking the sport out of the pub and injecting a touch of tongue-in-cheek glamour – the players were all graced with nicknames and started being accompanied to the stage by music and models. Since then the two governing bodies have conducted a bitter cold war – the occasional defection of players between the two organisations only heightening the tension.

In the battle for darting supremacy, only the most one-eyed supporter of the BDO would be unable to concede that the spoils of victory have gone to the PDC. The reason for this is Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.

To look at the guy, you wouldn’t assume that this is arguably Britain’s most successful sportsman ever. A short, fat bloke from Stoke, despite his obvious athletic shortcomings, Taylor has been blessed with fiercely accurate arm and eyes. And above those abilities, an almost robotic ability to resist mental pressure. After winning the BDO version of the World Title in 1990 and 1992, Taylor took the PDC version in 1995 and remained unbeaten in the tournament for the next seven years. World Champions of the BDO – great players like John Part and Raymond van Barneveld – were inexorably drawn to the PDC by Taylor’s gravitational pull. To prove you’re the best, you have to beat the best.

Raymond van Barneveld's 9 Darter

“The last two weeks of publicity have been solid,” exclaims Sid Waddell as we talk in the pressroom behind the stage at Alexandra Palace, “about how it’s a massive sport – featuring Barneveld and Taylor. You rarely get the cracks about the bellies and the booze now. The two deciding factors are both devoted to Taylor. He’s put the game where it is. And the way Barney’s come at him has made the other players feel that Taylor’s not invulnerable.”

Despite Taylor’s Federer-like dominance of the game, darts’ true beauty is that the battle does not always go to the strong or the race to the swift. Because darts, at the top level at least, is played in the mind. Of course when firing projectiles at tiny targets eight feet away skill is vital, but so often, when players of equal accuracy meet, the deciding factors are concentration (not throwing that one stray dart) and an ability to finish, throwing that winning dart when you know your opponent is poised to take the leg if you slip up. It’s this mental resilience to resist this psychological pressure that separates the winners from the also-rans. It’s why last year’s final between Taylor and Dutch great Raymond Van Barneveld was rightfully considered one of the sporting highlights of recent years. And it’s also why few people were surprised when Barneveld revealed that he’d been working with a master of Zen Buddhism in preparation for that very moment.

Aficionados of darts live for these moments. The action itself – two blokes throwing darts at a miniscule board – is not the thrill. The drama is the battle of wills. One of Waddell’s often-repeated comments is that Taylor “bullies” his opponents, piling on the scores and finishes, convincing his rival that he’s lost far before the dart hits the final double. In a match where this bullying isn’t all one way, the atmosphere at a darts game can become electric. As Waddell famously quoted, “The atmosphere’s so tense, if Elvis walked in here with a portion of chips you could hear the vinegar sizzle on them.”

Darts is big business in the UK now, and over the past ten years it’s become enormous in The Netherlands. But for those of us enamoured by the psychological beauty of the arrows, the day when the whole world steps up to the oché still seems a long way off.

“The BDO were very good at organising international and county darts,” recalls Waddell. “In the 1980s the best players were meeting each other almost day in day out so the standard shot up. How’s a Filipino player going to get the day-to-day competition? That’s the problem. That’s why it’s never really caught on in America. People have to fly 2,000 miles to get good competition. It won’t happen in America because the best guy in California – how does he meet the guy in Boston? Here you drive 150 miles to get hot competition. It is huge in the Philippines and the Czech Republic, and Americans feature here, but it’ll never catch on in America until they have an American world champion.

“If you’re playing for big money and the mortgage depends on it, or you want to be a millionaire like Taylor, you have got to do what he does. If Taylor looks cagey and fidgety after six hours a day practice, if the nerves can play on him, what’s it going to be like for [Rizal] Barellano – a Filipino taxi driver? There are a lot of factors to be taken into account for who has got the bottle and the talent and the tough psyche to handle the pressure.”

Waddell’s right on that last point but I suspect he’s been too close to the action for too long to see the broader picture. Certainly he remains in awe of Taylor, having watched him turn from novice into the game’s greatest ever player, and having co-authored the champ’s autobiography. Waddell reasons away the great one’s rare defeats. The rare tournaments the great man didn’t win? He had lost too much weight beforehand. Apparently.

But he’s right that the nature of the sport means that as unerringly accurate as any player is in the comfort of his practice room, he needs competition to understand what it’s like throwing under the TV lights and in front of a baying crowd. But the simplicity of the game is the magic of darts. Anyone can do it, but the arm and the eye must be perfectly in tune. Thousands of hours of practice are essential. But assuming those are in place, all it takes is a will forged from iron and you, too, could be world class. Of course, not everyone is blessed with that kind of mental toughness. That’s why we’re still waiting for planet darts to become a reality.

But maybe we won’t be waiting much longer. Ten years ago, the occasional Dutch player was an anomaly. Today, Dutch fans fill the arenas at both versions of the World Champions, cheering on a legion of genuine title contenders. In 2002 Australian Tony David shocked conventional wisdom by winning the BDO World Championship, while on 1 January 2008, in Alexandra Palace, Toronto’s John Part claimed his third World Title.

Look at the NBA 15 years ago. Conventional wisdom dictated that no matter how skilled players from Germany, China, Argentina, Spain or France were, they couldn’t live with the level of competition in the NBA. Today Dirk, Yao, Manu, Pau and Tony would beg to differ.

The global darts revolution has already begun. Game on!

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