Cheetahs can run, otters can swim. But show me the animal that can hit three treble 20s

Darts is the game through which man can truly surpass himself

Howard Jacobson@Independent
Friday 04 January 2013 18:42

The older guy won.

In the end, that’s all you need to know. The older guy knocked over the younger guy which means the younger guy will have to wait another year. Thus is natural justice satisfied: wisdom trumps avidity, the brain outwits the body, and the younger guy has the consolation of knowing he’ll be the older guy himself one day. Tell me this doesn’t beat the Olympics. I defy you: tell me the world isn’t a better, fairer, more amusing place for having Phil “The Power” Taylor, born 1960, destroy ‘Mighty” Michael van Gerwen, born 1989.

This, for the uninitiated and benighted, is darts I’m talking about. The World Championships held at Alexandra Palace and shown on Sky TV for what seemed like most of December, with a respectful pause over Christmas. If you wonder why my first column of the new year is so often about darts, it’s because I’m usually at home over the holiday period and can’t find anything else to watch on television. What’s the alternative to darts – Downton Abbey? Call the Midwife?

Anything “serious” to watch on television, I should have said. Darts purists might well contest that word “serious” when it comes to the way Sky packages the World Championships. Do we really need dancing girls flashing their tushes, they will ask. Must players be escorted to the oche by over-tanned promotional girls, bow-legged in white stilettos, who blow toothy kisses to the camera when they leave the stage, under the apparent misapprehension that the event is somehow about them?

The melodramatic introductions, as though John Part vs Dave Chisnall were the equivalent to Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman, the blaring music – “Chase the Sun” played whenever a player departs to take a leak – the flashing lights, the tanked-up audience shouting, “Oi! Oi! Oi!”, the hysterical commentary in which every game is billed as the greatest ever played – do I call this serious? What’s wrong with the actual business – a man aiming to throw seven darts at treble 20, one at treble 19 and one at double 12 – that it must be wrapped to resemble something different?

Ah, reader, I sympathise, but you miss two things. The first is the universal capitulation of sport, along with every other form of popular diversion, to the gaudy. The Olympics were organised along the lines of a rock concert. The same tushes that are flashed at Alexandra Palace are flashed in Mumbai whenever Dhoni hits a six. Even Strictly Come Dancing, than which, in its very conception, no light entertainment could be lighter, must lighten the dancing still further with that which isn’t dancing – how-much-do-you-want-this interviews, the camp banter of pantomime judges, and Bruce Forsyth mesmerised every time there’s a standing ovation, though he of all people should know a television audience will stand and ovate a boiled egg.

The second thing you miss, you who judge the World Darts Championships harshly, is irony. In fact, the inappropriateness of the packaging works in the game’s favour. Think of how the mock-heroic satirises the overweening ambition and self-absorption of the hero. Precisely because we know they are not Ali and Foreman, and they know they are not Ali and Foreman, the darts players make their ceremonial entrance with a sort of anti-swagger, conscious of their physical limitations, their mountain bellies, their chubby arms, their unhealthy complexions, in the process flinging our banal expectations of what sportsmen should look like – indeed, what anyone on television should look like – back in our faces. Quite obviously, their sheepish expressions say, as the bulbs explode around them, quite obviously the skills we possess require regimes of dedication that are different from what you’re used to applauding. So forget the idea of falling in love with us. Just try concentrating on what we do.

I salute them. We need unfamiliar heroics at any time, but after a year of worshipping at the shrine of speed and muscle, of bodies strung like instruments, it is salutary to be reminded that people have other ambitions, inhabit different shapes, and need not be young and beautiful, or want to dance, to be engrossing.

Seriousness is all. And the size of an ambition is no more a criterion of seriousness than is usefulness. A man might train fleas to jump over matchsticks and be serious. So once the fanfares are concluded and the promo girls have limped off, blowing final kisses at the cameras – in all kindness someone should have told them it was a darts championships they’d been hired to appear on and not The Only Way Is Essex – the darts reassert themselves, narrowing ambition to those small bands of cork enclosed by wire.

I have marvelled in the past at the touching contrast between the overflowing bulk of the man throwing and the dainty precision with which he throws. But darts players have shrunk considerably since then – I hope for reasons of health, not vanity – so the contrast is no longer as touching as it was. But the precision itself is still remarkable – such fine judgement, such subtle readjustment. See an arrow fly in slow motion, see how much it arches and how far it deviates, and it is a miracle it ever finds its target. A cheetah can sprint, an antelope can hurdle, an otter can swim. But show me the animal that can hit a treble 20 three times running with three darts.

Yes, the cheetah on the veldt is more beautiful than Phil “The Power” Taylor at the oche. But beauty, like celebrity, is a fatal distraction. As our powers of concentration wane, we more and more prefer what’s ambient to what is. Not so with darts, where neither youthful beauty nor garrulous personality can seduce us from the thing itself – a last refuge of the serious.

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