Darts steps up to the oche to stake claim for Olympics

From Jocky Wilson to Andy Fordham, its belt-busting legends have hardly exuded an image of Olympia. But the sport of darts is to stake its claim to a place in the 2012 Games by opening its first British academy of excellence.

The location of this latest example of fast-tracking tomorrow's sporting heroes is a room above a bar on a main road out of Hull. But the man behind the scheme, John "JJ" Gibbs, says that swilling lager will not be one of the skills on his six-week programme for 7- to 18-year-olds which starts next month. Instead, his protégés will learn such skills as how to stand at the oche for the best throwing position and how to calculate the best finish in three darts. The only drinks available will be soft.

"The days are gone when darts players had a fag in their mouth, a pint of beer in their hand and a big belly," said Mr Gibbs, who says that he, too, once had the obligatory dart player's stomach. "At one time I could sup 22 pints, but that's all history. Now I'm down to 15 stone. Today's young darts players look after themselves a lot better."

The project has the backing of the governing body, the British Darts Organisation, which three years ago succeeded in having darts recognised as a proper sport by UK Sport and is campaigning to have it included in the 2012 Games.

By opening the school, the BDO is following the example of Holland, where the government funds a course which has produced players like Jelle Klaasen, the youngest world champion at 21, and Michael van Gerwen, the BDO's No 3, who is 17.

The BDO hopes the academy will help its campaign for government backing. "We were recognised as a bona fide sport in June 2003, but we have yet to get any funding," said the organisation's spokesman, Robert Holmes. "We have the Olympics in 2012 and we are pushing for darts to be included, but there is no investment. We have had the Olympic committee come to our world championships and they were at the Europe Cup recently.

"There is a misconception about the game that it is just fat blokes drinking too much lager. It's an image created years ago by the likes of Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson, and one that's hard to shake. But the young players coming in are not overweight and are fit. Klaasen is about 10 stone, very thin, and doesn't drink or smoke."

The idea of darts players joining the Olympic realm does not delight everyone. The Sports minister, Richard Caborn, said in 2004 that recognition from the UK Sports Council was unlikely "in the foreseeable future". But darts has undergone a renaissance in recent years and it is the second most-watched sport, behind football, on Sky television. Tickets for the first pay-per-view darts match, between Fordham and Phil Taylor, sold out in half an hour. More than 7 million people play darts seriously in Britain and, according to the BDO, at least 100,000 of those are young people.

To prove that the game is a sport, the BDO has calculated that the distance walked by the England captain, Martin Adams, during the World Professional Championship was 26km (16 miles), as he walked up to the oche, collected his darts, and came back.

"We have cleaned up our image tremendously," said Mr Holmes. "There is no smoking or drinking in our competitions, people have to dress smartly. It's a proper sport. It's about how you stand, how you throw, how you focus, how you work out finishes, how you control your mind. It's a stamina game."

Mr Gibbs is giving his time free and has recruited 18 colleagues from the Humberside county team as coaches for the free four-hour sessions each Saturday. He has more than 30 youngsters signed up already.