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Continuing my irreverent tour of niche sports that nobody thinks are actually sports, this week my attention turns to the BDO World Darts Championship currently showing on the BBC.
My love affair with darts started early in life, as I often found myself sat in front of the TV getting caught up in the tension and uproar of it all as my dad did the ironing. With modern eyes, my love has stayed pure. While many of you will have, to put it nicely, “doubts” about the validity of darts as a sport on the modern stage, I am here to convince you that not only is it a highly-skilled profession, it is an incredible and historic amphitheatre of social commentary, banter and fun which you should all try at least once.
The world of darts is a weird and wonderful spectrum of manliness, booze, awkwardness and 180s. From humble roots in smoke-filled pubs of the 60s, darts was professionalised as a sport in 1976, taking the sporting prowess of the working man to centre stage, and bringing some of the most unlikely of characters to the oche. Attracting carpenters, miners, mechanics and other traditionally underestimated professions in sporting circles, for decades darts was the rough and ready rest-stop for many, where inter-round refreshments for the “athletes” were of the alcoholic kind.
Today this world has significantly changed, but the passion, the drive and the grit of it all stays true to form. While Bullseye has vanished into the ether once more, professional darts routinely draws in large audiences around the world and commands a faithful following like no other. While I may be flogging an invisible horse on this one, as in many ways darts is the absolute opposite to most parts of gay culture, Stephen Fry has been convinced, so why not give it a go too.
All in all, it is fair to say that darts is a true postmodern hot-mess of culture, society and sport, so without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, sit back, relax, and let’s play darts!
Iiiiiin 1. Messing with the body ideal.
One of my favourite aspects of darts is its absolute rejection of any idea of physical beauty, bodily perfection or any prerequisite fitness to compete. In a way you could say that darts queers the body ideal, turning it on its head as it creates cults of personality around chunky, buxom, balding, middle-aged men, rather than the muscled and refined heroes of virtually every other sport. It is one of the only sporting arenas where being plus size is not to your disadvantage, and not a point of criticism. In fact, losing weight actually damages your performance as the shift in weight affects your balance. Any sport that has as its #1 seed a man of Stephen “The Bullet” Bunting’s stature is a sport for me.
Iiiiiin 2. The skill.
Many of the haters out there write off darts as a simple pastime for the stereotypically larger gentleman to play whilst he’s in the pub getting hammered. Haters gonna hate, but to really appreciate the skill and pin-point accuracy involved in darts, step up to the oche and have a go. The precision and discipline required to routinely land the dart at a set point from just under 8ft away is an intense and under-appreciated skill. To reach perfection, the 9 dart finish, you need to master this and consistently not get a single dart out of place. Watch as Phil “The Power” Taylor breaks records with two incredible 9 dart finishes in one match:
Iiiiiin 3. The thinking man’s game.
Darts is inescapably an easy target, as butch, grunting men assemble, sweat a bit, and throw things. However, to play darts you need to be able to calculate your way down from 501 through a whole host of possibilities and outs in the blink of an eye. Darts players are many things, but stupid is not one of them, as shown by Eric “The Crafty Cockney” Bristow’s ridiculous mental maths:
Iiiiiin 4. The crowd/ The mob.
Ok, so enough with all the serious stuff. The darting arena is like no other. Full of lads, LAAADS and lasses, with a few novelty palm trees thrown in, the audience for a darts competition is always a fun, boozy and inescapable baying mess of humanity.
On occasion there are hot Dutch ones:
on occasion a woman resembling my mum holds up a stuffed elephant:
but all in all the audience is a beast onto itself. I am going later this year and cannot wait. While I am the polar opposite to lad culture, the darts mob is a friendly one full of banter and passion, and despite appearances, no hate, unless you’re Robbie Savage:
Iiiiiin 5. The banter.
A large part of this darting culture is its hearty reliance on Northern banter. This has been institutionalised through crowd chants, the trademark impassioned commentary of the dearly departed Sid Waddell, and nicknames and humour throughout the game. Case in point, Dean Winstanley, lovingly labelled “the oldest 31 year old in darts” due to looking absolutely haggard.
Iiiiiin 6. The nicknames that just don’t add up.
At times you could be forgiven for mistaking any current darts competition for a Brasseye mockumentary about the weird and wonderful faces and egos of the sport. The personalities and characters on show, or often the lack-there-of, when coupled with the most irrelevant nicknames in the game, make for some moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in The League of Gentlemen. There’s always a weird tension between the self-conscious pressure of living up to the idea of a sportsman/icon, and the reality of being a middle-aged, sweaty, balding man/woman who’s just really good at darts. The nickname never really syncs with the player and I love it, but damn, try and figure out where these nicknames came from:
Albertino “The Sensation” Essers
Karin “The Dolphin” Krappen
Wayne “Hawaii 5-0” Mardle
Scotty “Too Hotty” Waites (Not for me thanks)
Iiiiiin 7. The walk ons.
A key weirdness in these really lacklustre attempts to establish a cult of personality around profoundly average men and women are the walk on ceremonies. Here the players almost inevitably stand looking bemused, awkwardly walk slowly, or wield an even more awkward prop, and self-consciously slap the hands of fans on their way to the stage, all while sound systems blare out the most inappropriate high-tempo tunes. Case in point, Hammertime with Andy Hamilton:
There’s something postmodernly beautiful about darts players just not really getting it and just messing with the system by just being clueless and awkward, all while being flanked by beautiful poster girls. However, in a sea of non-sequitor, lacklustre entrances, one man stands out. Ladies and gentlemen, Ted “The Count” Hankey:
Iiiiiin 8. The straight-talking shade of it all.
If you haven’t guessed by now, personalities in darts players are such a weird phenomenon, constantly wrestling between blokey silence and laddy banter. However, one of the most refreshing parts of the game is the absolute straight-talking quality of it all, demonstrated perfectly by Wayne Mardle after losing to Co Stompe. I quote:
“I wasn’t feeling sorry for him. To be honest, I was throwing as if Co wasn’t there, cos he was that bad. And you should always respect your opponent, and I, I didn’t respect him at all. I pictured him as not even playing cos he was that bad. But I was even worse.”
The shade of it all.
Iiiiiin 9. Documenting the ravages of time.
In being significantly less physically demanding than other sports, darts offers a unique view into the life of a sportsman from start to finish, as players can generally play on for decades if they so wish. Whereas Freddie Ljungberg has long since slinked off into the shadows to age gracefully, there is no such luxury for darts players. Whether John Lowe’s receding hair line, Eric Bristow’s face, or Ted Hankey’s ponytail, the true horror of ageing and late-mid-life is played out under the unforgiving lights of the darts stage. In certain cases darts players stick around for so long that you watch them go through several stages of grief for their youth. Case in point, Phil Taylor:
The bright, young, hairy thing.
The mid-life, blonde bombshell complete with earring crisis.
The resigned to it all, power daddy
Time waits for no man, least of all the darts player.
Iiiiiin 10. Joey Essex’s future.
With this in mind, I had a revelation earlier. Is it just me, or does the TOWIE cheeky chappy Joey Essex bear more than a passing resemblance to the younger version of darts’ very own cheeky chappy from Essex, Bobby George?
Either way, the only was is Bobby, Joey. The future:
Iiiiiin 11. The prizes.
For many of a certain age, or those who were brought up on a mixture of Challenge TV and Dave, Bullseye was the quintessential embodiment of darts’ bullish spirit in their front room. Aired routinely on Sunday evenings, it has actually previously been credited as reducing the number of Sunday night ennui suicides. The power of darts. Under the guidance of Jim Bowen, contestants would routinely compete for prizes by throwing darts and answering questions alongside famous faces from the darting world. This all culminated in a final round where contestants either stood to win a mystery prize or their bus fare home. The prizes were spectacular, ranging from a microwave to the naffest speedboat the 80s had to offer.
While now dead and buried, the joy the programme brought to millions, and the wonderful and awful prizes brought to a lucky few, is testament to the power of darts, especially for these two. I am sad to think that I will never again see anyone as emotional over a caravan:
Iiiiiin 12. The montage.
Finally, all said and done, if you’re still not convinced that darts is actually a sport of skill, cunning, banter, and attitude, I hope you’ll be won over by my final dart at double tops. Skip to 4:26 and check out just how epic darts looks set to ‘The Eye of the Tiger‘: