And God saw the flight, and it was good: and God divided the flight from the dartless...
We are currently in the middle of darts' world championship season. The PDC (Professional Darts Corporation) World Darts Championship concluded on January 2, with defending champion Adrian Lewis defeating fellow Englishman Andy Hamilton in the final. And on Saturday, the Lakeside World Professional Darts Championship, organised by the British Darts Organisation, began, with England captain Martin Adams hoping to win his third straight World final this Sunday.
Two world championships? Do shove ha'penny and table skittles have three each? Is foosball selling out Wembley Stadium? Is darts really so awesome as to require two global showcases to contain the overspill? Perhaps, although those observing the quality of play at the Lakeside this week may wonder: why is a pub game such a big deal that its greatest practitioner could be voted Britain's second greatest sportsperson of 2010?
First, a brief history lesson. The modern era of professional darts effectively began in 1973 with the foundation of the British Darts Organisation in London. (Though it is an international sport, it was and remains centred on Britain.) They organised the first World Championship in 1978, and darts became a surprise hit on British television. The best players—such as John Lowe and Larry Bird's cocky Cockney cousin Eric Bristow—became household names; Dexy's Midnight Runners could embellish their Top of the Pops performance of "Jackie Wilson Said" with a picture of Kirckaldy's finest, Jocky Wilson, and know that everyone would get the joke.
But the bubble could only remain inflated as long as the game's image as a pursuit for those whose constitution was half-lard, half-alcohol was not seen as detrimental. Players were barred from drinking and smoking during games in 1989, but darts came to be perceived by sponsors and television executives as too rough around the edges and too doughy in the middle. By the early '90s, darts' TV presence had almost winked out of existence. The leading professionals, frustrated at the BDO's intransigent attitude to progress, left to form the World Darts Council (now the PDC). The BDO carried on in their own amateur way, while the PDC created their own circuit, including their own world championship. With the backing of Sky Sports, and later the snooker and boxing impresario Barry Hearn, the PDC attracted more and more sponsorship money and more and more of the BDO's top professionals. The standard of play has reached new heights in the PDC, and it is easily superior to the BDO.
This superiority has been accompanied—and to some extent occasioned—by noise, of the literal and figurative kinds. Hearn and the PDC have consciously turned darts tournaments into shows: big, brassy explosions of wow, rather than just things that happen to be happening. Darts crowds were never exactly Wimbledon-quiet nor -sober, but here they are more than ever akin to football crowds (or how football crowds can be), breaking into spontaneous song and refusing to hush during throws. Players enter the arena like boxers, flanked by models and a security detail. They glory in daft nicknames: Canada's John Part is Darth Maple; James Wade is The Machine, probably because he often breaks down at inopportune moments; Andy Hamilton is The Hammer, so his walk-on music is "U Can't Touch This", and he carries onto the stage an inflatable hammer with which he drives an imaginary nail to the center of the earth, like some Norse god of darts and inflatable hammers.
Sky's anchorman, Dave Clark, is the most optimistic of all God's creatures; neither he nor Sky's array of pundits have ever seen a long match that might not just be the greatest ever. And then there are the commentators, who call each game as if it might at any moment break into Ragnarök. The most famous (or infamous) is Sid Waddell. Devotees of Gol TV in the United States know all about Ray Hudson's soccer commentary, all ecstasy and sense-warping similes. Waddell, another Geordie, is wilder, more florid, and even more manic. The greatest piece of sports commentary I've ever heard of (rather than actually heard, sadly) is his: "When Alexander the Great was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer. Bristow is only 27." (Waddell was recently diagnosed with cancer and missed the World Championship. Here's to a full and speedy recovery.)
Hype is worthless, however, if it doesn't connect with intrinsic properties of what it's promoting. It heightens what's already there, but only if there's something to heighten. A game so simple and, frankly, devoid of strategic depth and nuance should not be so ridiculously entertaining. In each leg, each player starts on 501 and must work their way down to exactly 0, finishing on a double. As a hole of golf requires a combination of big hitting towards the green and intricacy once there, so darts requires big scoring and often maddening attempts to score the clinching double. The targets are small and the margins incredibly fine, the distance between treble 20 and single 1, for example, is the width of a wire. It's a remarkably difficult thing to do at all, let alone consistently. One micro-miscue can mean the difference between winning and losing a best-of-five-legs set, which can set off a chain reaction of doubt in subsequent sets. A player is in competition with another, but essentially, he is fighting against himself. A darts match is a prolonged penalty shootout in which a player has all the time he needs to think himself into, or out of, the right frame of mind; it's like a too-sensitive meter. It would be cruel if it didn't involve consenting adults. Darts is a lair of that shadowy beast called Psychology, so beloved of us sports fans, and its fluctuations are made explicit in the faces of the players, captured by the cameras who never let them be. This intensifying effect on often highly-strung players can be utterly thrilling. One player may soar as the other falters, and the positions can reverse in an instant, as they did in this year's World semi-final between Adrian Lewis and James Wade: Wade led by 5 sets to 1, and had a dart to win the match at 5-3, but missed, allowing Lewis to power home. When two players get in the groove, as Andy Hamilton and Simon Whitlock did in the other semi, it's so exciting that legislation is surely in train to ban it. And once seen, a perfect nine-dart leg is never forgotten.
The marriage of hype and innate drama in darts is dizzying. Some of the specific aspects may disquiet: the atmosphere may too laddish for some tastes; and the only women on show are the walk-on girls and the cheerleaders, the latter of whom dance sans pompoms, presumably so nothing gets in the way of the copious bosom and gusset shots the Sky producers are able to squeeze into a thirty-second montage (interspersed with players' celebratory gurning for form's sake). Still, the general effect is an intoxicating glee. Sports hype can be risible and overbearing. The capricious nature of entertainment in sport won't do in the all-or-nothing world of the marketer: we are promised continual rapture, because we're worth it. Furthermore, that the hype is often carried out in the name of Mammon (it certainly is in darts) can be unsavory. But the PDC has realized that a sport must proclaim its worth, and they do so with gusto. For better or worse, this is the language of top-flight sport today. "New" sports like darts have to make themselves known in a world of games which have had a century or more for mythology and mystique to accrete around them, which they can draw upon at will. The history, the teams, the colours, the rules, the narratives, the gossip, the glitz, the bullshit: they all take a sport from being a pastime—mere play—to being a ceremony (as I'm sure Barry Hearn would put it). By enacting itself, the sport celebrates and glorifies itself.
We come here to the dart player in the room: the not uncommon conviction that darts is not a sport. There are two reasons for this. One is a mutated form of classism, that darts is a markedly working-class game. So, of course, is soccer, at least according to the popular image. But darts originated in pubs, whereas soccer, like most of the world's football codes, can trace its lineage to the playing fields of Victorian England's public schools. No one playing these modern games consciously thinks of this ancestry when doing so, but they carry in their DNA some of the supposed nobility embodied by these institutions, in the sacred spirit of mens sana in corpore sano.
Which brings us to the second reason: it is unathletic. Darts does require a certain amount of stamina, but it's hard to get around the stomachs of many of the players, spilling over their belts like cornucopia of mystery meat. One concludes that there must be some Darwinian advantage to such girth; anchorage, perhaps. Yet archery and shooting, to take two kindred sports, rarely meet such accusations. They wangled their way to Olympian respectability because they got in early, so to speak, while the sporting universe was only starting to coalesce, and on account of their military bloodlines. Clearly, this "athletes only" rule posted on the gates of sporting Elysium has small print. After all, 150 million people won't be gathering in front of their tellies in a few weeks' time to watch the Super Ballet.
Why, then, this superficial worship of the athletic? What is so precious about this one particular element of sport? Why the need to construct such arbitrary hierarchies, to play metaphysical bouncer? Could it be that we are afraid that if we examine our own sporting loves too closely, we might conclude that an awareness of their ceremonial nature may undercut their value? (It shouldn't.) Could it be that watching other members of our species who are athletically superior to us (that is, superior to us in an obvious and envious way) gives us a chance to bathe in reflected glory, that it is a twisted kind of vanity?
Of course, we want to believe that our passions are to some degree sacrosanct, and we'd all like to be live-action discoboli. But darts knows that we're also whores for drama and for the joy of watching someone do something very, very well; it knows that nothing is sacred, or at least that sacredness is a quality we ourselves invest in an activity—when it comes to sport, at any rate. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, waddles onto the stage to the sound of "Surfin' Bird", and proceeds to throw a 105 three-dart average, one may try to tell it what it's not, but others will just delight in the tungsten terpsichorean. Fearful taxonomy is nothing next to the gaiety of nations.