I’m at the Lakeside Country Club in Frimley Green, about forty miles southwest of London. This curious venue in semi-rural Surrey has been the mecca of darts for nearly thirty years, the place where they hold the World Professional Championship every January. I’ve been here before, but it still feels like a pilgrimage.
You may or may not know about the twenty year old ‘split in darts‘ that has resulted in two separate circuits with (mostly) separate tournaments and two different ‘world championships’, held almost back to back around the New Year. The other (PDC) tournament is now held at Alexandra Palace in London and features more money, more glitz, a larger audience and Phil Taylor, unquestionably the greatest darts player of all time. This (BDO) tournament, once the most prestigious, is increasingly looking like the lesser of the two in terms of players and standards, despite recent changes. You can play in one or the other, but not both. Some people are fans of one tournament only, and loudly badmouth the other as either ‘sports entertainment, not real darts’ or ‘Dad’s Army plodders’, depending. Some people like both. I like both.
I fucking love darts. I’ve been watching this tournament on the BBC almost as long as I have been alive. It’s as much a part of the cultural fabric of the UK as the Shipping Forecast or James Bond – although it’s probably more popular in the Netherlands per capita. Because of the BBC coverage, there isn’t a person alive in this country who is unfamilar with the basic rules or the ‘onnnee hundred and eeeiiiggghttyy’ bellow of a referee announcing the highest possible three-dart score. The death of commentator Sid Waddell last year made front as well as back pages. At this quarter-finals session I get to watch Robbie ‘Kong’ Green vs. Tony ‘Silverback’ O’Shea, two heavyweight contenders doing nothing to change the image of the sport as solely for overweight men. It’s like watching two giant primates battling for domination of the earth. (UPDATE: The 2013 World Championship was won by Scott Waites.)
Yes yes yes, you may be thinking. What the hell has this got to do with archery? Well, quite a bit, as it happens – particularly in the UK. The history of darts and archery is mired in semi-facts and legends about barrel-staves and blowpipes. The two go back a long way, though – Henry VIII, a well known fan of archery, was given a set of “darts of Biscayan fashion, richly ornamented,” by his wife Anne Boleyn in 1530 – although these were probably not darts as we know them today but more of a small throwing spear. The assumption that darts was an ‘indoor version’ of the famous mandatory archery practice, useful for cold British winters, seems to be well-rooted. (Actually, darts itself appears to be a partially French game). Darts in the UK is frequently referred to as ‘arrows’ or ‘the game of arrows’. The similarities are really based on the targets, though. Round. Banded. A prize right in the middle.
When I went to watch archery at the Olympics last year (which you can read about here) I had several people describing it as either ‘big darts’ or, more frequently ‘posh darts’. Not unreasonably, the one arrow shoot-offs were scathingly described as similar to ‘shooting for the bull to decide who throws first’. More amusingly, I’ve heard darts described as ‘working-class archery‘. The general perception is that archery is a middle-class sport in this country, which may or may not be true – you can trace different historical strands from the working-class companies at Agincourt to the sport’s green-bodiced medievalist aspirational heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the class element comes out in the frequent calls for darts to become an Olympic sport. Feel free to Google the wide strand of opinion that says ‘why is archery (or shooting, or showjumping, or whatever) in there but darts isn’t? Posh rubbish’. (The answer is, of course, that archery as a sport is practised worldwide, whereas the vast majority of top darts players are from Britain or the Netherlands).
Despite a lot of people’s best efforts and reasonable arguments, I think it’s pretty unlikely the IOC will put it darts on the programme for 2020. I suspect there is an element of snobbery though. Darts has long laboured under the shadow of a famous sketch from the 1980s at the sport’s beery zenith, and the boxing-style live elements introduced by the PDC don’t help matters. Not that I think any of it should change. I love the noise and the excitement and the music and the intros and the lights and the waving of the banners and the pitchers of beer and the dressing up and… the lot. I love it all. The Lakeside venue itself, with its atmospheric mix of faded music-hall and end-of-pier cabaret remains utterly unique. This is how we do it, and we don’t care what you think. What other world championship sporting venue has a giant picture of Engelbert Humperdinck in the cloakroom?
One strand of thinking suggests that if archery is to become a bigger spectator sport, it should try to become more like darts. Alan Wills mentioned this during the Olympics:
The Cumbrian, who is part of Great Britain’s Olympic squad, says a change could boost the sport’s popularity.
“They could have a masters event with archers from around the world, and have crowds like they do at the darts,” Wills told BBC Sport. “I’m known as ‘Dangerous Al’, so others could have nicknames too. It’d be more exciting for people to watch.”
Promoter Barry Hearn helped revolutionise darts during the last decade, with players given nicknames and entering the arena to music. As a result, attendances at events have vastly improved, along with the prize funds, helped by the growth in television coverage.
That’s all very well, but a cranked up noise level at archery events has been blamed for losses before. The two sports require focus, precision, muscular control, confidence, and a cast-iron mental game, but the more Zen, martial art attractions of archery sit slightly at odds with the noise and the glamour girls and the bookies. (Although I did quite well out of betting on archery at the Olympics. Due to the high turnover of matches, one particular online bookmakers fell asleep at the wheel and frequently failed to close the individual match markets before they had started, leaving you able to watch live and bet in-play at the pre-match odds – this happened at least twice. I was praying for a match to go the ‘wrong’ way so I could really take them to the cleaners, but somebody eventually woke up…). At the Lakeside, they have a Coral’s concession right there by the front door:
Darts as a spectator sport is really a product of the TV era, with the invention of the split screen. Even at the events, ultimately everyone is watching a giant screen for the information. No one apart from a handful of people right at the front can see the board. Archery, of course suffers from the same problem magnified, although quite often the archer can’t see what they have scored without a scope. Increasing the excitement for the audience, with screens, ideas such as heart rate monitors and targets that give instant feedback as to hits would help. The technology is available – it’s whether there is will or interest to do something else.
I think the reason why target archery isn’t a big spectator sport outside the ‘big dance’ every four years is the fact that there isn’t really a great deal of strategy involved in the actual gameplay itself to add tension and interest. The simplicity of the objective in target archery is, of course, one of the most beautiful things about it, but it doesn’t endear it to spectators, especially non-specialists. The head to head format has helped, but in darts you have the double finishing, the counting, the necessary shift in style from scoring to finishing, the ‘breaking of serve’, the curious ‘punishment for failure’ of the numbering plan, percentage shots, bonuses for a high checkout, the progressive increase in sets, and the holy grail of a nine dart finish to keep things interesting, as well as frequent variants such as ‘double start’. But the real hook of darts is the speed of play, and the fact that a leg isn’t finished until the final dart hits the double or bull – until then, anything is possible. No one can get an unassailable lead. Some of these ideas have been implemented in field archery competitions, but if target archery ‘wants’ to become a bigger global sport, it may require some different thinking.
Archery and darts have frequently been combined in other ways, though. 70 or 80 cm dart board faces are popular and found in many UK club cupboards. Competitions combining the two have been held, frequently. The Stoke Mandeville games, a forerunner of the Paralympics, used to feature a sport called archery-darts:
Archery-darts or dartchery as its name was shortened to was first demonstrated at the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1953 and added to the competitive programme in 1954. This game began at the Chaseley home in Eastbourne, where a team of wheelchair archers would take on teams of non-disabled darts players from pubs and clubs in the area. The non-disabled darts players would play their normal game throwing at the normal board. The wheelchair archers would use a bow and arrow shooting at a board exactly three times the normal size of a standard dart board at a distance of thirty feet… Dartchery remained on the Paralympic programme for wheelchair athletes up until Arnhem in 1980.
And there’s this:
In archery-mad Bhutan, they combine archery with thrown darts in something that looks like a laugh, frankly. All this, and annoying TV ads too. As long as target faces are round, it’ll be here. Get used to it.