Darts: Feeling good in game of change: Richard Edmondson reports from the World Championship on the upheaval facing darts

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The Independent Online
TO IMPROVE the image of darts, players no longer drink or smoke while on the stage of televised tournaments. To satisfy their cravings, they seem to be doing little else when they return from competition during the World Championship at the Lakeside Country Club in Surrey.

Backstage at Frimley Green this week is a palace for fatigued glass collectors and a haven for those who enjoy passive smoking. It is also a place for as diverse a variety of sporting participants as you can find.

There is Alan Warriner, the psychiatric nurse from Lancaster, who, with a consistency to match his play, continually groans his way through James Brown's 'I Feel Good'. There is Bobby George, who at 47 still wears yellow sequinned shirts and a chain that would secure a liner, and is wont to carry a candelabra to the oche with him. He also wears a selection of chunky rings which look less like jewellery and more like bits of car engine.

And, of course, there is Eric Bristow. The 'Crafty Cockney' may be a flicker of the player he once was, but he is still the fulcrum of matters backstage.

Bristow, a second-round victim this week, has been struck by an affliction often talked about in this sport but never recorded officially in the Lancet: dartitis. This is an inability to let go of the dart and means the boot is as likely to be skewered as the bull.

'I used to watch people with it when I was younger and I used to think 'what's the matter with him?' Bristow said. 'Then all of a sudden I got it. I've shed a lot of tears over it since then.'

No matter. Bristow, thanks to his regular success in the world championship, which, in a corporate dream, is referred to by all players as the Embassy, is still Britain's best known darts player.

Despite his flagging ranking, he is one of only two figures (another creaking talent, John Lowe, is the other) who can command pounds 1,000 a time for company trade days. Other, more successful players, take home pounds 200 for an exhibition.

Bristow knows that darts will never be considered a legitimate sport and does not deny that the players drink. Indeed it would be difficult to do so as some of his fellow professionals move around with the spreading hollow of their navel sucking in great sections of shirt.

'We do drink, because darts is a pub game, but we're not crazy,' he said. 'You can't go up there steaming and play well.'

With Eric and the boys still around, the world championship has been reassuringly unchanging this week. The same faces and the same surroundings of spectator tables crammed with fried food and glasses, illuminated delightfully by crimson lanterns.

However, other things are changing in darts. For many years the game has been run by the British Darts Organisation, but there are signs of a putsch. The BDO has ascribed the decline of darts on television in recent years to the modern leaning towards fitness activities. Many of the top players ascribe the decline to the BDO, and its failure to court television producers.

A consequence of this dissatisfaction has been the growth of the World Darts Council, which seeks to return to the old days of consistent media exposure.

'When Eric and I were at the top we were on telly all the time,' Lowe, the players' spokesman, said. 'One year I was on personally for about seven hours if you added it all together. Now when Phil Taylor, who has won the world championship twice, walks down the street, people don't know who he is.'

There are those who believe that when this year's final is played out on Saturday it will be the last under the auspices of the BDO, and that the game will have a different set of officials patrolling the backstage area. Only the glass collectors, it seems, if their lungs hold out, are certain of a job.

(Photograph omitted)