Britain gave the world soccer, cricket, rugby, tennis, badminton and even baseball (really!), but it has been decades since its sporting heroes last lifted the World Cup or triumphed at Wimbledon, let alone played in a World Series.
There is one homegrown sport, however, where Britannia still rules the waves. Fifteen of the top 20 players at the current Ladbrokes World Darts Championship in London are from the UK, and only five foreigners have ever won a world darts title. The action wraps up on January 1 with Englishman Phil "The Power" Taylor taking on the Netherlands' Michael van Gerwen in the final.
You can still find a competitive darts club in almost every pub in England. Britain even had a long-running “darts with the stars” TV show called “Bullseye” where contestants won money with the help of professional players.
If football is as American as apple pie, then darts is as British as fish and chips and a pint of beer. Coincidentally, that is also the traditional diet of many of Britain’s top darts players. While this means contestants may not have quite the same pin-up potential as, say, Michael Phelps, it drives home the fact that in Britain darts is literally for everyone.
Only last week, Guinness World Records crowned 92-year-old great-grandmother Candy Miller from Poole, England, as the oldest darts player in the world. She plays regularly in her local league in Dorset and claims to have twice achieved the game’s maximum score of 180, although not in the last 30 years.
If no one is too old to throw a dart from the oche (throw line), it is difficult to be too tipsy, either. Darts is the only sport where it is almost obligatory to spend every night in the pub “practicing,” and only in 1989 were finalists in BBC-televised games banned from drinking alcohol on stage.
Darts in the dock
Darts flourished in British pubs, rather than French cafés or German bierhalls, thanks to a legal loophole. In Victorian times, gambling was outlawed in British pubs, but games of skill were not. While a round of poker would attract the wrath of magistrates, players could claim that a friendly game of “arrows” was perfectly innocent.
The authorities sometimes fought back. In 1908, police accused the Adelphi Inn pub of Leeds of breaking the law by hosting a game of chance, namely darts. In court, the canny innkeeper offered to pitch his best darts player against the Clerk of the Court. Three bulls-eyes convinced the judge that skill was definitely involved and the games continued — although, incredibly, it was not until 2005 that Britain officially recognized darts as a sport.
For a taste of darts as it used to be played, head up to Manchester. Here, more than 50 local leagues still play on small, black log-end boards that lack treble rings and have to be stored in water every night to prevent cracks from appearing.
The sport’s unending popularity couldn’t stop a split in darts itself, whose championships broke into two versions in the early 1990s. Many of the sport’s best players left the British Darts Organisation (BDO) to form the rival Professional Darts Corporation (PDC). Although the split was acrimonious at first, these days it simply means more darts for fans to enjoy.
Almost as soon as the PDC Ladbrokes World Darts Championship ends at the historic Alexandra Palace, or “Ally Pally,” in London, the BDO Lakeside World Professional Darts Championship begins 50 miles away in rural Surrey.
A major darts championship has to be seen to be believed. Fans dress up in outlandish costumes, models strut on the stage, players sport eye-watering shirts (and often equally fantastical tattoos) and the tension can be unbearable. The commentary is delivered in dramatic tones and packed with darts slang like “bag of nuts” (a score of 45), “champagne breakfast” (78) and “not old” (37).
Most top-level games sell out months in advance, and tickets to the BDO Championship, January 5-13, are particularly hard to come by. 2012 was the first time ever that no Briton came out on top: Dutchman Christian “The Lipstick” Kist won the men’s contest, while Russian-born Anastasia “From Russia with Love” Dobromyslova-Martin topped the women’s competition.
For the 2013 Championship, expect a sea of Union Jacks and a flight of patriotic arrows seeking to recapture Britain’s (almost) unbeatable darting glory.
by Mark Harris
Top: James Wade of England throws a dart during this year’s Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship at Alexandra Palace in London. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Right: The expressive Englishman Phil "The Power" Taylor will compete for the World Darts Championship. (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
Left: Darts competitions are raucous events where fans dress up in costume and wave signs for their favorite competitors. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)