Retro delights: Darts

In the 1970’s it seemed a beer belly was a requirement for any aspiring ‘oche jockey’. Now with talk of darts becoming an Olympic sport, Chris Maume looks at its history

The golden age of darts was the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, when the likes of Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson bestrode the "oche", beer-bellied demigods with magic in their fingertips. We gazed in awe, mesmerised by the waistlines, seduced by the staccato rhythms and mathematical certainties. Even those otherwise indifferent to sport grew accustomed to finding themselves unable to rise from the sofa thanks to some gripping late-night confrontation from Wembley Arena or Alexandra Palace.

Thought to have begun with off-duty archers keeping their eye in by hurling mini-projectiles at the ends of upturned barrels, the game soon caught on, and Anne Boleyn presented Henry VIII with a fancy set of "arrers" (rumours that she lost her head after beating him with a nine-dart check-out have never been confirmed, but then neither have they been disproved). It was also said to have been played on the Mayflower, though presumably without the heroic drinking that characterised later years. The Victorian era was the Dark Ages, thanks to the Gaming Act, but in 1908 William "Bigfoot" Anakin, a local champion, was taken along by a publican to Leeds Magistrates Court to demonstrate its credentials as a game of skill. Three double-20s apparently convinced the beak. Game on!

By the 1930s, when darts was called up for service in the circulation war between the News of the World and the People, it was virtually a national obsession, and in 1937 the King and Queen were photographed launching a few royal darts. TV coverage followed from the early 1960s, most of it featuring the commentary of the great Sid Waddell. But when Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith took to the oche in Not the Nine O'Clock News, downing their double gins and triple Bacardis – "it went in but, oh, it's come out again!" – they fixed darts in the public mind as a drink-sodden joke, and the bubble burst after World of Sport was pensioned off in 1985.

Splitting into two separate entities in the early Nineties could have been the death knell, but the galvanising effect of Phil "The Power" Taylor – think Tiger Woods, except not so young and not so handsome – was its salvation. Now it's in rude health. Three years ago, Sport England said it satisfied the requirements of "mental and physical skill" to receive funding, there's drug-testing, and even talk of Olympic status. And for the amateurs among us, today's binge-drinking culture seems ideally suited – what better way to round off an evening's brawling and vomiting than with a quick blast of 501? Careful with those arrers.