Ramblin' Sid and Stavros worth the weight

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The Independent Online
Drama. Spectacle. Gut- wrenching tension. The biggest stars, the finest sportspersons in the world locked in combat, their nerves strung tauter than suspension-bridge cables, their lager cooler than Des Lynam . . . What do you mean, they don't have lager in Atlanta? This was Blackpool, home of the week's really big sporting event: The World Matchplay Darts Championship (Sky).

Bit of a challenge for Sky, all this Olympics stuff. Not much else going on apart from the Games, and umpteen channels to fill. But over the hill and into the Winter Gardens rides Ramblin' Sid Waddell, the Thesaurus Kid, and the schedulers can breathe again. Not just darts matches. Really, really long darts matches: first to 11 wins, and the hours fly by.

Dave Lanning was Waddell's sidekick for the Rod Harrington v Dennis Priestley quarter-final, and he reminded us of the rules. "No question of judges, line calls or controversy," he pronounced. "This is a simple game." A simple game, for which the players need no more accompaniment than a flag- bearing blonde, dry ice, swivelling spotlights and many decibels of Gary Glitter to get themselves going. Michael Johnson's fondness for gold shoes seemed modest by comparison.

Once the blondes had waddled off, Waddell twaddled on. "Rod will want to do something about that," he noted as Harrington made a shaky start. "A bouleversement is called for." Quel horreur. Having ransacked the English lexicon, Sid has got his hands on a Larousse dictionary.

The darts, for once, lived up to the hype. First to eleven wins - with a lead of two. First Priestley, "Dennis the Menace", edged ahead. Then Harrington, "The Prince of Style", pegged him back. "The Mexborough Master" took the lead again, but "The Essex Exocet" hung on grimly. Harrington, Waddell, said, was "breathing fire and spitting chips". Understandably, Mrs Priestley looked "like Mary Queen of Scots when she got the hard word about the chop".

She was reprieved. Priestley nicked it 15-13, with the crowd on the edge of their seats and Sid on the edge of insanity. "That," he yelled, "is absolutely off this planet." And Sid was absolutely off his rocker.

Those nostalgic for the days when darts players looked like they consumed not just lager but the barrels it came in will have been gripped by the final of the super heavyweight weightlifting on Olympic Grandstand (BBC 1). David Vine was at the microphone for a contest full of human interest between interestingly full humans.

Pavlos Saltsidis of Greece caused the first drama. He was late on stage and ran out of time for his lift. But wait: what was this? Stavros, the Greek team manager, the former owner of an Atlanta pizza joint, heading for the judges with steam issuing from his ears, bouncing Olympic officials aside as if they were made of balsa.

Vine reached for the rule book. "There is no possibility of any appeal," he stated. Seconds later, Saltsidis was reinstated. One suspected that Stavros had threatened a sit-on: he would use the judges as cushions unless his man got another lift.

As the competition reached its climax, two men were left in contention. Ronny Weller, of Germany, and Andrey Chermerkin, of Russia. Weller, who looked like he could have demolished the Berlin Wall single-handed, lifted a new world record, a tad over a quarter of a ton. The spectators lifted the roof, and Weller rewarded them by removing his wooden-soled shoes and hurling them into the crowd. By a miracle, there were no fatalities.

Weller clearly believed that he had the gold in his bucket-like hands, but he was reckoning without Chermerkin, who strode thunderously to the stage and demanded even more weight. "He has asked," Vine whispered, "for - wait for it - 260 kilograms. For a new world record, a new Olympic record, and the small matter of the gold medal."

Which he achieved. While he celebrated with a ground-shaking star-jump, the producers replayed his lift from every conceivable angle. Oddest of all was the shot from a camera embedded in the floor. It was no doubt intended to focus from below on the lifters' straining faces, but the technicians had failed to take into account Chermerkin's personal architecture. All you could see from this angle was the vast blue curve of his belly, like the earth photographed from space. Appropriate, really, for a world record.

A final note on Olympic television coverage. The ultra slow- motion replays of the track events have allowed wonderful close-ups of the expressions of the athletes. This has led to the revelation that, for sprinters in particular, facial relaxation is a vital component for success. Unfortunately the sight of Michael Johnson powering serenely down the straight with his jowls dancing calls irresistibly to mind a labrador in a dog-food advertisement slobbering over the fields home to lunch. Down boy.

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