Darts: Wobbling on brink of alcohol-free new era

By Mike Rowbottom
Saturday 26 January 2002 01:00

The film Renaissance Man, which happened to be on the telly recently, features Danny DeVito as an English teacher working with a group of Army recruits. At one point he attempts to explain oxymorons, and comes up with "military intelligence".

I do like a good oxymoron. "Hideously pleasant", for some reason, has pleased me for years. "New man" – that's an amusing one. And I experienced another oxymoronic jolt this week with the news that darts plans to rid itself of the fags-and-drink image by introducing dope-testing. "Dry darts"? Add it to the list.

According to the chief executive of the Professional Darts Organisation, Tim Darby, the idea has been prompted by a desire to bring the players' image into line with other serious professional sports. Now where is the sense in that, I wonder?

It is not a freak of chance that one variant of the darts world championship is sponsored by a lager company and the other by a cigarette manufacturer. The backing reflects the fact that this is a sport, recreation, call-it-what-you-will that has its natural home in the public bar. Trying to re-brand darts makes as much sense as marketing alcohol-free Theakston's Old Peculiar.

And make no mistake about it, if the PDO – which has already sought the advice of UK Sport over instituting an anti-doping policy – presses on towards its clean new world, booze will become a thing of the past for the active player.

The International Olympic Committee rules, the model for worldwide anti-doping measures, make alcohol a restricted substance, and in archery and shooting, the two closest activities to "arrers", there is zero tolerance. "It's a safety issue," said a spokeswoman at UK Sport.

Zero tolerance. Let's just pause for a moment with that thought. It means darts players without trebles, doubles, or even singles. We are talking soft drinks. We are talking sparkling mineral water.

A joyless prospect, I think you will agree. And who would it please? Certainly not the audiences, who drink and smoke industriously. Industrially. As for the television viewers – what do they care whether the tension-wracked combatants make their regular journeys to the oche via the drinks table?

"Welcome to the Perrier World Darts Championship, live from Alexandra Palace". I don't think so. We have had enough of squeaky-clean role models. What's wrong with a few roly-poly models?

Next thing you know, darts will be pushing for inclusion in the Olympics. After all, if bridge can make a play for being a Winter Olympic sport, then an activity that involves regular, if limited physical effort must be in with a shout.

I foresee trouble ahead in that eventuality, however. With another Winter Olympics just around the corner, my mind goes back to the last gathering of bobbers and skiers in Nagano four years ago, when snowboarding – a sport with its own well established doping policy – made its debut at the Games.

The news that the first snowboarding gold medallist, Ross Rebagliati, had tested positive for cannabis was not shocking to anyone with passing knowledge of the sport's youth culture. Rebagliati successfully pleaded innocence, citing a going-away party at which his friends (but not he, oh no) had partaken of the deadly weed. He had inhaled, but he hadn't smoked – a nice variation on the Bill Clinton line of defence.

I fear darts players will be equally unable to resist honouring their own sport's traditions as Olympic challenges rise up ahead of them. Then again there is always the possibility of claiming that the alcohol fumes exuded by those around the oche had made them guilty of no more than passive drinking

And there is another heartening factor for the traditional darts player as he wobbles on the brink of a new era. While drinking may be a no-no as far as the IOC is concerned, the use of nicotine is not restricted. As far as the men in Lausanne are concerned, your average sportsman can smoke like a beagle.

But more sinister threats to the traditional fabric of this noble pastime loom with the prospect of doping harmonisation. Let us hope that the testers, as they go about their backstage business, do not feel moved to visit the commentary box to run the rule over the strangely interesting Sid Waddell.

"Like they say in that old Canadian-Indian proverb: 'When the squirrels march backwards, the forest is on fire' – and Part is ablaze"... "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow's only 27"... "He looks about as happy as a penguin in a microwave". I fancy mind-altering drugs could be at work here. And losing Sid Waddell is a risk darts cannot afford to take.

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