Golden arrows: Why darts is booming

As sports go, it's got the lot. From larger-than-life competitors to lager-quaffing fans, and all the thrills and spills you could wish for. Little wonder that darts is so popular - and could even earn Olympic status in time for the 2012 Games. Devotee Guy Adams steps up to the oche
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Friday night at the Circus Tavern, Purfleet, and the party's in full swing. Peter "One Dart" Manley battles through a fug of smoke, dry ice and warm beer, and reaches the stage to his theme tune: "(Is This the Way to) Amarillo". The crowd rise to their feet, ecstatically applauding this unlikely hero. Manley, dripping with sweat, gold jewellery and the excess baggage of a lifetime's pub-going, punches the air in delight. A referee in white tie wanders up to the microphone, clears his throat, and prepares to deliver the line we've all been waiting for. "Are you ready?" he asks. "Yes!" screams the crowd. "Then," he declares, "Let's... play... daaaaaaarts!"

Welcome to the second round of the 2007 PDC Championships, the jewel in the crown of the professional circuit, and an event that bears witness to the renaissance of a sport that only a few years ago was being written off. Throughout the 1990s, naysayers predicted the end of this pub game (they wouldn't even call it a "sport"). Darts was dull, and naff, and couldn't disappear from our TV screens quickly enough.

But darts has defied the doom-mongers, and today the sport couldn't be healthier. Each day for the past two weeks, the PDC has sold out the Circus Tavern, broadcasting live to a worldwide audience, and culminating in last Sunday's showdown between Phil "The Power" Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld, which may yet go down in darts history as the greatest match ever.

This weekend, meanwhile, sees the start of the BDO World Championships at the Lakeside. Over nine days, players like Andy "The Viking" Fordham and Martin "Wolfie" Adams will vie for the £290,000 prize money. The action will be broadcast on BBC TV and radio and syndicated to 70 countries. At close of play, well-lubricated fans will also be invited to join the studio audience of Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother's Big Mouth,which is to be broadcast live from the Frimley Green venue. This is confirmation of what organisers have long claimed: darts has finally entered the mainstream.

Behind the scenes, the game is in the middle of a make-over. Eighteen months ago, Sport England put an end to an age-old debate by declaring that darts was officially a sport, rather than a game. As a result, it has acquired drug-testing, codes of conduct and schools of excellence, and will bid to become an official Olympic sport when London hosts the Games in 2012.

Not everything's rosy, though. In the background lies a deep-seated conflict between two rival circuits, the BDO and the PDC, that has split the sport in two, ruined careers, ended lifelong friendships and cost millions in legal fees. Today, both sides agree on just one thing: wherever your loyalties lie, darts is entering a golden age the like of which was last seen in the 1980s, when 10 million watched Eric Bristow, the "Crafty Cockney," win his third world championship. That feat inspired commentator Sid Waddell to declare: "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow is only 27." Today, both on and off the "oche", darts, and its unlikely band of sporting heroes, are busy conquering new worlds.

***

When I tell people that I love darts more than almost any other sport, they look at me with bewilderment and crack jokes about fat men who sweat a lot, drink too much and wear nasty polyester shirts. In a roundabout way, though, they've hit the nail on the head. The appeal of darts, the very nature of its sporting greatness, lies in the juxtaposition between the physical profile of the top players and traditional professional athletes.

I love darts because, rather than in spite of, the fat men who play it. I love the way the game ebbs and flows towards each noisy crescendo, with every "thud" of arrow hitting board capable of making, or breaking, a match by a margin of millimetres.

Most of all, though, I love the theatre. Darts provides pantomime like no other televised event since the 1980s heyday of ITV's World of Sport, which gave us heroic wrestlers like Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki. Unlike wrestling, darts isn't fixed, though. It's real. It has proper goodies and baddies, men with nicknames like Tony "The Silverback" O'Shea, who came up through the pub circuit of his native Stockport, or Ted "The Count" Hankey, a brilliantly sinister former world champ who models himself on Dracula.

It has dry ice. It has flashing lights. It has girls in bikinis - and commentators of the brilliance of Sid Waddell, who can rustle up lines like: "Big Cliff Lazarenko's idea of exercise is sitting in a room with the windows open taking the lid off something cool and fizzy..." Together, they turn what should be an unglamorous and repetitive spectacle into a fast, furious and utterly addictive combination of sport and showbusiness.

I am not alone, either. This year, darts will move from its atmospheric, yet pokey, venues into a new circuit of 15 larger arenas. The PDC has raised £2.5m for events at venues such as the Sheffield Arena, which has 4,500 seats. Many are already sold out.

Masterminding the move is Barry Hearn, who took over leadership of the PDC five years ago with the promise: "Darts is the sport of the new millennium... it will lead to a television boom the like of which we haven't seen since snooker." So far, he looks like being proven right.

***

It's Saturday afternoon, and in the upstairs room of Brownie's Bar in Hull, 50 schoolchildren are peppering one of a dozen dart-boards under the watchful eye of John "JJ" Gibbs. This is Britain's first darts "school of excellence", an academy that aims to provide the sport with its stars of the future. "You've heard of Wayne Rooney, you've heard of George Best. Now come and watch some of these lads," says Gibbs. "They're 14 years old, and hitting treble-twenties for fun."

The school also underpins the grassroots of the game, ensuring that the city's darts leagues of the future will have a ready supply of committed players. John gives me a lesson in the noble art of arrows. "On a technical level, darts is about three things," he says. "It's about the stance, how you hold it and how you release it. You are holding the dart like a girl. Put it in three fingers, and that way you'll release it straight. Now you've got it right, all that's left is practice."

Gibbs is riding high. A week before Christmas, Eric Bristow visited his school and played an exhibition game against two of its protégés, 16-year-old Alan Adams and Alan Smirk, 18. Both beat him. "He hit three or four 180s, but so did we," Smirk recalls. "I went out on a 48, which is a 16 then double 16. It's one of my favourite checkouts and I don't think he could believe it."

Bristow retired from competitive darts in the 1990s after developing "dartitis", a condition similar to the "yips" in golf that renders a player incapable of hitting the doubles required to "check out" or finish a game. Yet, while no longer world-class, he's still a formidable opponent.

Today, JJ wants Hull to become darts capital of the world, taking 30 kids a year on a full-time darts scholarship. They'll spend three days a week at the local college, and the rest of the time in training. "We may not end up with 30 lads who are top, top players, but they'll at least be a credit to the city," he says. "This area is very deprived - there's a lot of drugs and I believe darts is an opportunity.

"Up here, the Government has taken everything. The playing fields, the sports halls. The kids have nothing to do, and they're into muggings and robbing old ladies. But I believe darts can work a miracle, I really do."

***

A world away from the grassroots in Hull, the professional game is undergoing a quiet revolution. Phil Taylor, the greatest player in darts history, has dominated it for a decade and a half, winning 13 world championships, and earning in excess of £1m a year.

Yet his crown is slipping. On Sunday, Raymond "Barney" van Barneveld came back from three sets to nil down to prise the final of the PDC tournament from his grasp, 7-6. At the end of an epic match, the Dutchman held his nerve to hit a double 20 when, with the score at six sets all and 5-5 in legs, the match went to a deciding leg, a darting version of the penalty shootout.

Barneveld has beaten Taylor three times in the last year (The Power has won against him twice), and threatens to overtake him in the rankings. In the meantime, a host of young Dutch stars are also creeping to prominence. Last year's BDO tournament was won by an unseeded teenager called Jelle Klaasen. Third seed this year, and a smart bet for the title, is a 17-year-old from Holland, Michael van Gerwen.

They are heralding a new era of young, thin darts players. In the UK, the heir apparent to Taylor's crown is Adrian Lewis, a 21-year-old from Staffordshire. Lewis became Taylor's protégé shortly after taking up the sport four years ago. He's now ranked fifth in the world, and trains for up to eight hours a day. "I first played when I was 17 and was working in a builders' merchants," he recalls. "We went down the pub one day, and had a game, and I kept on hitting 180s. My mates said, 'Bloody hell, you could be something special.'

"There was a copy of Darts World magazine lying around and it said there was a British teenage open happening soon, so I entered it and won. Then I entered a PDA tournament in Newcastle on the Saturday, when I should have been at work. I got to the semi-final, won £1,000, and quit my job the next day. Shortly afterwards, I met Phil Taylor. He came up to me and said he'd heard about me and would I like to come up to his house to practise. I now go every day."

Barneveld's success at the PDC came a year after he defected from BDO, and highlights the continuing rivalry between the two professional circuits. In the mid-1990s, 14 of the world's top players decided that the BDO - at the time the sport's only professional body - was mismanaging their game, and failing to secure the TV coverage and sponsorship it deserved.

They split to form the PDC, sparking litigation that ended up in the High Court (it was never resolved) and bitterness that endures to this day. As a result, all of the world's professional players must choose to play in one of the two circuits, effectively splitting the sport in two.

"When the BBC dropped several darts tournaments, we felt there wasn't so much as a whimper from the BDO, so we split away," says Tommy Cox, a PDC co-founder. "They've never been reconciled to us. The same people are still there, and they've got the same attitudes, so we will never make up with them while that's the case."

The split ruined several promising careers. Terry Jenkins, a Herefordshire player known as "The Bull," says it forced him out of the game for almost a decade. "The whole thing happened when I was in my mid-twenties," he says. "I was playing in the BDO. But after the 14 players left, I lost interest.

"I played the odd tournament here and there, but it wasn't until four years ago, when I decided to join the PDC, that I started throwing full time again. In many ways, I wasted the best years of my career. I could have achieved so much." Jenkins is also troubled that Taylor (who plays PDC) isn't picked for the England team (run by the BDO).

"There's lots of politics going on and it spoils darts. Phil Taylor, the greatest player ever, isn't picked for England. Instead, you've got Wayne Mardle getting selected, because he's a show-off and the crowds love him. It just isn't right."

The BDO, for its part, claims to represent the interests of the grass-roots game, and is behind the campaign for Olympic status. It says the success of its tournament at the Lakeside, which starts on Saturday, proves it is managing the sport properly.

***

Back at the Circus Tavern, the crowd are in two minds about the growing professionalism of darts. Since it became recognised as a sport, the game has had to adopt alien concepts, such as those codes of conduct and drugs tests. In June, Robbie Green failed a test at the UK Open, when cannabis was found in his bloodstream. He was fined £2,000 plus his prize money, and banned for several months. "People say dope isn't performance-enhancing," says Tommy Cox. "Well in darts it is. It relaxes people, and when you're up there, there is massive pressure. Yes, we've also got a code of conduct, and banned drinking and smoking at the oche, and introduced fines for sledging or swearing or gamesmanship such as slow play. And rightly so."

The top players are slowly becoming more professional, adopting fitness regimes and hiring sports psychologists to improve their consistency. "People say it's not a physical sport. Well, if they were to play it they'd soon find out that it is," says Jenkins. "And the youngsters coming through - they're super-fit. Darts is about building confidence and feeling loose. You've got to keep your throwing arm loose, and if you're unfit, and don't play for a week, it soon stiffens up."

Yet somehow, the sport manages to resist gloriously the onset of professionalism. As Manley starts throwing against a South African qualifier called Wynand "The Springbok" Havenga, it soon becomes clear that something is deeply wrong.

Manley is renowned for his prodigious consumption of booze, and the word on the floor is that he's "overdone it" before this evening's game. His face is blotchy, his balance wobbly and he keeps drinking jugs of water in an apparent effort to sober up. Finally, despite a heroic comeback, he goes down to Havenga by four sets to three. And as he leaves the stage to return to the players' bar, I realise that in chucking away this match for the sake of a few festive ales, "One Dart" has done something very special: he's managed to capture the true spirit of darts.

The things that make darts great

THE WIVES

Behind every great player is a long-suffering wife. She must watch the action in the glare of a TV camera, wearing bright colours, gold jewellery and a perma-tan. Some are more than just supporters. Jenny, wife of Andy Fordham (below left) runs The Rose, a pub in Dartford where her husband trains each day. Yvonne, wife of Phil Taylor (below right), has a practise board in their bedroom. Peter Manley's wife, Chrissy, ran a campaign to stop fans booing, after allegations of gamesmanship at the Circus.

THE WALK-ONS

A darts player does not amble from the dressing room. He appears gladiatorially, in a cloud of dry ice, to the strains of his favourite song. King of the crowd-pleasers is Wayne "Hawaii 5-0-1" Mardle, who wears Hawaiian shirts, and emerges to the theme tune of the TV show. Ted "The Count" Hankey often uses a sinister excerpt from Carmina Burana. Darryl Fitton is famed for his "Madness" walk, performed in sunglasses to their "One Step Beyond".

THE COMMENTATORS

Bobby George (top), the rasping Essex-boy who wears more gold than Mr T, is the official "voice" of the BBC. He is second only to Sid Waddell (above), king of the superlative, who uttered such lines as "Bristow reasons... Bristow quickens... aah, Bristow", "The atmosphere is so tense that if Elvis walked in with a plate of chips, you'd hear the vinegar sizzle" and the immortal "If we had Phil Taylor at Hastings against the Normans, they'd have gone home."

THE FANS

A ticket to the darts provides you with a seat half-way between the oche and the bar. Fans are encouraged to wear fancy dress - superheroes, nuns and school uniforms are the top choices. All are required to leap to their feet when a player hits a 180 or when darts' anthem, "Trace the Sun" by Planet Funk, is played. "How many days are there in a year?" says one fan, Ashley Holgate, from Mitcham. "Well, I'm playing or watching darts on 340 of them. I just love it."

THE NICKNAMES

No self-respecting darts player goes without a nickname. They can make or break a career. Take Steve Beaton, formerly known as the "Bronzed Adonis". In the mid 1990s, Beaton won the world championship, only for his game to go into decline. It only picked up again last season, when he relaunched as "Magnum" on account of his resemblance to Tom Selleck. Now he's rebranding yet again as the "Marathon Man", after taking up running "to make up for the extra pint or two".

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