It is chucking-out time at the Circus Tavern and a fleet of taxis and minibuses is taking home the fans after another beer-filled night at the World Darts Championship. When the drug-busters from UK Sport come to test the players, which they may well do at the latter stages of the tournament, you can only hope they will not be leaving at the same time. The night air in Purfleet is so thick with alcohol that their drug-testing kits might start sounding off like Geiger counters on a sultry day at Sellafield.
Drug testing at the Circus Tavern, where 1,000 spectators consume 11,000 pints of beer a day, might sound as unlikely as a cricketer winning Strictly Come Dancing, but after a year in which MPs were treated to an exhibition of the game at the Palace of Westminster and Sport England formally recognised it as a sport, darts is getting serious. The sport has signed up to the World Anti-Doping Agency code and from 1 January players will be tested in and out of competition.
Peter Manley, the chairman of the Professional Darts Players' Association, said yesterday: "Introducing drugs testing is an expensive business, but if it means we all know that we're competing on a level playing field then the players are all for it."
All the usual drugs, from stimulants to steroids, are banned, though Wada's standard list of proscribed substances does not include alcohol. Some sports ask for it to be added: while a pre-competition pint of Old Peculier might not make you run a marathon any faster, it might settle your nerves in a sport, like darts, with less strenuous physical demands.
Until he became one of the stars of television's Celebrity Fit Club, Andy "The Viking" Fordham, who plays at the British Darts Organisation's rival world championship event at Frimley Green (the Circus Tavern event is staged by the breakaway Professional Darts Corporation), was said to drink a dozen bottles of beer before his matches.
Darts has yet to agree a policy on alcohol, though it has been making a concerted effort to move away from the image which threatened its televised future after the initial success of the Eric Bristow-Jocky Wilson era. Players are now forbidden to smoke or drink on stage.
The drug testers will monitor alcohol levels and report back to the sport's governing body, the Darts Regulation Authority, which will decide whether to follow the recommendation of Phil "The Power" Taylor, the game's greatest player. Taylor, seeking his 13th world crown, advocates zero tolerance.
"It's up to the DRA," Manley said. "I don't think many of us would have a problem with alcohol being banned. I do exhibitions up and down the country and I usually drive to them, so I can't drink anyway.
"Besides, the days when you could play while drinking a pint of beer and smoking a cigarette have long gone. Standards have risen so much that the only way you're going to succeed is if you take a very professional attitude. Some people just don't realise how many hours of practice we have to put in."
The introduction of drug testing follows Sport England's decision to recognise darts. Those who think it ridiculous that unathletic darts players should be regarded as proper sportsmen are asked to consider whether similarly proportioned golfers like John Daly, the former Open champion, or snooker players like Shaun Murphy, the world champion, also deserve recognition.
Sport England's decision could, in theory, see grants awarded to darts to help with the sport's development. "We certainly hope it will open the doors to wider sponsorship and a chance to more people to play the game on the sort of stage that the leading players now enjoy," Manley said. "In China they have big sports halls dedicated to darts: that's something we'd like to see here one day."
There was even fanciful talk of darts being included in the 2012 London Olympics. It probably fulfils the basic criteria: to join the Olympic movement sports must adopt the Wada code and demonstrate that the game is played widely by men in at least 75 countries and on four continents and by women in 40 countries and on three continents.
However, decisions have to be made seven years before the Games (baseball and softball were voted off the 2012 schedule earlier this year) and, considering the failure of well-established sports like squash to break into the Olympic ring, the chances of darts getting on to the podium are virtually non-existent.
Television coverage of darts and prize-money, nevertheless, continue to grow. The current PDC tournament has been extended by four days to 11 in total and, for the first time, started before Christmas, along with Sky's wall-to-wall coverage. The first round began on Monday and finished last night; after a three-day break, competition resumes on Boxing Day. The BBC will show live coverage every day of the BDO's world championship, in the second week of January, for the first time.
The calendar keeps expanding and prize-money, particularly for events organised by the PDC, which features nearly all the world's best players, is such that the number of fully professional players is now in double figures. The winner's cheque at the Circus Tavern will be £100,000; total prize-money is £500,000, an increase of 40 per cent over the last two years.
Ladbrokes, the sponsors, are happy to put the money up for a sport which is becoming increasingly big business. More money is gambled on darts than on golf, for example, and the introduction of "in-play" betting is likely to provide another boost to business.
The rise in standards also means that there are more players capable of shocking the big names. Two of the world's top three are already out at Purfleet: Colin Lloyd, who capitalised on Taylor's absence at some lesser events to become world No 1, was beaten by Gary Welding, the No 52, while Ronnie Baxter, the No 3, went out to Ray Carver, an American ranked No 135.
The man they all have to beat is Taylor, who won his first-round match comfortably on Monday and does not play again until next Tuesday. "I've never had to wait that long between two rounds of the same competition, but I'm feeling in good shape," he said. "I'm enjoying it more now than I used to. I don't feel I've got anything to prove any more, though I'm definitely here to win."