Matt Butler: Poignant moments hidden behind Eric Bristow bravado in Sports Life Stories

View From The Sofa: Sports Life Stories, ITV

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The Independent Online

First things first: darts is not a sport. It is a game of skill, of course, but so is KerPlunk. Yes, there is sweat involved, but that is more because of the spotlights and lack of fitness of the participants than any physical exertion. And yes, it has been a stalwart of the festive calendar for sports channels (this year’s World Championship starts on Friday), but the main reason it cannot be called a sport is that you can still perform at the highest level with a cigarette on the go.

Let’s get this straight. We’re not talking about whether smokers can play elite sport – if they couldn’t then we would have to deny Shane Warne, Zinedine Zidane and Bradley Wiggins the privilege of being called sportsmen. But with darts (and golf, for that matter) you can actually play at a decent level while smoking. If you needed any proof, the archive footage in ITV’s Sports Life Stories documentary on Eric Bristow was fair swimming in a fug of second-hand smoke. In his right hand was a dart. In his left, a fag.

That is not to take anything away from the pressures darts players face – after all, there is often a lot riding on the single throw of an arrow, as Bobby George found to his peril in the 1980 World Championship final – a match which Bristow looked back on with glee in the documentary. “It always helps if you learn to count. Ask Bobby,” Bristow said with a mischievous grin.

The show was the sixth in what has been a very good series, detailing the lives of sportspeople from Jimmy White, the snooker player, to Nicola Adams, the Olympic gold medal-winning boxer. Even Tottenham forward Jermain Defoe’s episode had some priceless revelations about his former team-mate at West Ham Paolo Di Canio’s affinity for tight shorts.

Bristow had the reputation as a mouthy, arrogant player; a bad winner. It was one which helped put bums on seats and propel darts into the public consciousness. And it was one which he refuses to shy away from.

He kept up a front for much of the documentary, but there were a few poignant moments, such as when he spoke about the boozing culture among players. “You never beat the barman,” he said. “Jocky [Wilson] tried, but he lost. When you start sitting on your own in your house having a drink, there’s something wrong somewhere.”

His recounting of the onset of dartitis was equally bleak. Dartitis is, according to Wayne Mardle, a player interviewed, the loss of belief that you can throw a decent shot. “You’re trying to throw the perfect dart and you start to wonder if you can,” he said.

With haunted eyes, Bristow said: “If you’re flowing, the darts just go in. If you aren’t...” before trailing off with a shrug of his shoulders.

At the beginning of the programme Bristow admitted he still plays almost every day. “I’d be lost without it,” he said. By the end of the show, after he had detailed the anguish of mentoring Phil “The Power” Taylor only to fall victim to the present world champion repeatedly, then losing “everything” after he was accused – then cleared – of assaulting his wife, you got the impression that his dedication to the game was a lifelong attempt to recapture the glory days, rather than for pure enjoyment.

It was dramatic – which is, of course, an essential ingredient in sport. Even if the activity in question isn’t one.