I’ve got a friend who’s fond of reducing sports to their basic, root functions to show how ridiculous people’s pursuit of them are. For him, the world’s most popular game is about “overpaid prima donnas kicking a pig’s bladder from one side of a patch of grass to another for an hour and a half.” The noble sport of cricket involves “someone dressed all in white throwing a ball of leather at someone standing in front of some pieces of wood.” When I told him I was going to spend some of my spare time during a trip to Belfast at a darts tournament, he stopped what he was doing, paused for a moment, then said, “Ah, darts. Overweight men who live in their local pubs throwing pieces of metal at a board made of cork. You have fun.”
But if ever there was a sport that defies a simple definition, it’s darts. As British a sport as horseracing or snooker, darts is a rowdy blend of old-school ritual and polished, Sky Sports razzmatazz; a dizzying night out where excessive drinking and fancy dress is all the rage and moderation goes out the window. If you threw together a football match, a wrestling show, a stag do, an episode of Bullseye and staged it in your local, I imagine it’d resemble something similar to my night in Belfast.
The first thing I notice when I enter the Odyssey Arena for the first week in the Premier League Darts season are dozens of long banquet tables taking up the entire floor space. They’re similar to the house tables you see in the Harry Potter films, only instead of the seats being taken up by wizards and witches, it’s armies of boisterous young men, most of whom are aged between 25 and 40.
Attendance at some sport events require a designated dress code. For football, it’s a strip or scarf. For a cricket match at Lord’s, it’s a jacket and tie for the men and dresses for women. And you won’t get into Ascot’s Royal meeting in June if you’re not wearing a top hat and tails. But darts operates under rules that are a mixture of a child’s birthday party invitation and a rugby club initiation ceremony: costumes, along with lots of alcohol, are prerequisites. Since I don’t drink and neglected to pack my best fancy dress costume, I look as conspicuous as someone wearing a green hooped jumper at Ibrox.
There are men dressed up The Mask, Sonic the Hedgehog, E.T., and the Honey Puff Monster. Ironically, I can also see a man dressed up as Where’s Wally. In the toilet, I have an awkward moment standing next to someone dressed as Kermit the frog, and back at our table I watch a man try to ingest a cup of beer through his Mr Blobby costume. And to think that the last time I was at the Odyssey Arena was for a Taylor Swift concert.
The darts players themselves are every bit as charismatic as the fancy dress costumes. Every player has a nickname, entrance music and shiny outfit. There’s James ‘The Machine’ Wade, who enters to ‘Bonkers’ by Dizzee Rascal and Simon ‘The Wizard’ Whitlock, an Australian player (with an admittedly wizardesque beard) who comes on to the song ‘Down Under.’ There’s also the characteristically stoic Raymond van Barneveld, whose nickname ‘Barney’ goes to show that unoriginality doesn’t need to hinder your search for another moniker.
But perhaps the biggest cheer of the night is reserved for darts legend, Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor. Having won a record 16 world championships, he’s easily the best player of all time and is to darts what Pele is to football or Jack Nicklaus is to golf. His records in darts have definitely helped lend an air of legibility to the sport – he’s finished runner up in the BBC sport’s personality of the year
awards a couple of times – and he’s as characteristically stereotypically a darts player that you could get, with tattoos covering both arms and a rotund belly. Bing Crosby once moaned, “Frank Sinatra is the kind of singer who comes along once in a lifetime – but why did it have to be my lifetime?” In the darting equivalent, Sinatra is Phil Taylor.
I’ve got a theory that the reason darts is so popular is because it’s replacing football as the sporting outlet for working class men. Fifty years ago, football was a multi-functional game that could supply the working man with everything he needed to celebrate the end of a hard, working week. Thousands of men would descend upon stadiums to stand, sing and swear together. But in the aftermath of Hillsborough Disaster and the Taylor Report, football was sanitized and domesticated. Standing sections and alcohol disappeared, and the middle class fan was born. Darts, on the other hand, is really just that stable pub sport given a facelift. It’s been described as “pure working class theatre”, and watching crowds of young men standing on tables, drinking beer and singing along to the darts anthem, “Chase the Sun”, it’s hard to disagree. Phil Taylor may be a millionaire, but he wouldn’t look out of place sitting in the corner of a pub moaning about his missus moving his shiny shirts.
During a break in the action I strike up a conversation with the guy next to me. Besotted by George Best growing up, he tells me, “I support Manchester United, and I’d love to have a season ticket. But supporting a club doesn’t make financial sense these days. Traveling from Belfast to Manchester every other week to sit next to strangers, in a stadium as quiet as a church mouse to watch a bunch of foreigners? That’s just madness.” He goes on to say, “Tonight a group of my mates have come down here and got tickets together, something you can’t do at the football. They didn’t cost much and we’re planning to get as drunk as possible. And these guys we’re watching look just like us. Footballers wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire, but these guys just look like folk you’d
see down the pub.”
For myself, the darts is interesting enough without having to resort to drinking. As expected, the night’s best match is a barnstorming encounter between Taylor and the young upstart, Michael van Gerwen, their first match since Taylor beat him in the PDC world final. During the match, Taylor nearly throws a fabled ‘nine darter’. In a game of darts everyone starts with a score of 501; the aim is to get to zero as soon as you can, and the shortest number of darts you can do this in is nine. Similar to seeing a hole in one in golf or a 147 break in snooker, Taylor’s hit two 180s and is en route to a memorable moment, before he fluffs his lines and we get back to our drinks. Fittingly, the match ends in a draw and the night ends.
On the way back into the city centre my friend and I debate the sporting merits of darts. “Surely nothing can be considered a sport if you ever get better at it by spending more time in the pub?”, he asks. I can always remember my PE teacher telling me that if you could smoke during a game, then it’s not a sport. Admittedly, no darts player stops for a fag tonight, but some of them look as if they’ve struggled to make it up the stairs.
But let’s not get carried away over a semantic debate about the worth of darts, I tell him. Tonight, thousands of people from across Northern Ireland have been amazed by an eclectic range of entertainers. Sky Sports have beamed the event live across the entire nation to millions watching at home. There’s been glamour girls and pyrotechnics. Who cares if it’s a sport or a game?
Well, the Olympic International Committee for one. Having included rugby sevens and golf as part of the Olympic programme for the 2016 games, darts is being touted for inclusion in 2020. If enough people play it, and its governing body follow the IOC charter, then it can be incorporated. And most people have played darts at some point in their lives, but I imagine that very few children have some spare discuses hanging around the house. So in nine years’ time, don’t be surprised to see Team GB’s track and field heroes standing next to some plumper counterparts. After all, there’s already a game at the Olympics where “you throw a pointy metal stick as far as you can.”