After my extensive investigation into the sporting world of Kazakhstan last week, you'd be forgiven for assuming that there was nothing more to know about the place. I thought the same thing. Until my final day in the country in which, after a curious series of events, it appears that I might now be the Kazakh national darts champion.
I had a morning to kill in Almaty before I headed off to the airport and my flight back to the UK. As I wandered around town I came across much excitement outside the entrance to a dingy-looking bar that seemed like the sort of place that the Velvet Underground would have frequented, had they formed in Kazakhstan and not New York. I hung around to see what was going on. It was difficult to make out but there was one clue – a large, round, blue poster with three darts over the sky-blue Kazakh flag. Then a gentleman walked past me in a tracksuit with the words "Kazakhstan" emblazoned on the back. He was carrying a set of smart-looking darts. I stopped him and we attempted to communicate. His English was limited but I managed to work out that these were the Kazakh National Darts Championships.
I attempted to introduce myself but I fear that there was some kind of misunderstanding as I was rapidly ushered into the building and found myself lined up in a tunnel with a whole lot of darts players. "Parade of Champions," said my new friend in the tracksuit. Music blared and we all marched into the main room in the glare of several television cameras and to the sound of the rousing Kazakh national anthem. We all lined up like soldiers and put our hands to our hearts as the anthem went on ... and on. Eventually, after what seemed like eight verses, it stopped and a man in a suit stepped forward to give a long and passionate speech. My new friend handed me a card and pointed at the man speaking. The card informed me that this man was the chairman of the Kazakh Darts, Archery and Ballet federation. This struck me as a peculiar combination but nothing surprised me any more in this country. (I later discovered that the Kazakh word for crossbow is very similar to ballet, so I'm assuming that it, like a lot of my trip here, was a misunderstanding).
The opening ceremony over, it was down to the serious stuff – darts. Around the room were seven dartboards and attached oche. The competition was a knockout tournament played in best-of-three games of 301.
I have not played much darts in my life. Like everyone else I have drunkenly hurled a couple of "arrers" in the pub, but that's about it. The competition started. Several competitors seemed to be having problems actually hitting the board. I relaxed a little. I definitely wasn't going to be last. I did OK and sailed through a couple of rounds aided by the presence of a lot of free beer from the sponsor – a Turkish brewery. After two hours of not very intensive competition, I made it to the final. Beer flowed and a tense crowd admired my unique throwing style. To cut a long story short... I won. I was handed a gold medal (made of tin, I think) and was immediately interviewed by the attending Kazakh press.
A tall, thin reporter with metal braces on her teeth congratulated me on my victory. I thanked her profusely. She asked me whether I thought that, in time, Kazakh players would be able to reach the skill levels of English players. I kept as straight a face as I could and told her that the most essential skill in darts was drinking. This "alcoholic training", I told her, if done right, could steady both the hand and the nerve. The reporter nodded solemnly as though I was presenting her with some religious revelation. "The Kazakh people are a great drinking nation," I continued. "As such they show much potential for becoming a major force in world darts in two to three years." The reporter glowed with national pride. When the interview was over she asked me for my name so that they could subtitle me.
"My name?" I asked, playing for time. "Why of course, my name is... The Cotswold... Crusher". It was pathetic but she wrote it down assiduously. I longed to hang around and chat with some of the very attractive darts groupies that were assembled by the bar, but my plane home and grim reality awaited.
I got in a lot of trouble online last week for not mentioning the Astana Cycling Team when talking about the world of Kazakh sport, so now I have mentioned them ... but still don't really have much interest.