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Thursday, January 14, 1999 Published at 12:11 GMT


Darts: Not just large men and lager

Pints and alcohol are banned from the player arena

Simultaneously narrowing his eyes to focus point and placing a half-lit cigarette between his lips, a man of serious girth approaches the oche, cocking his elbow to a familiar angle.

Without disturbing the froth floating in his pint glass (held, naturally, in his left hand), the right releases its tungsten missile.

But the British Darts Organisation says this popular view of a darts match - a vision of a smokey event housed within nicotine-stained walls - is 15 years out of date.

[ image: Sylvie Barneveld celebrates with Dutch fans]
Sylvie Barneveld celebrates with Dutch fans
Players are now sportsmen, it says, and their game is a classless arena for family get-together and social interaction.

"Everyone thinks it's about fat blokes, fags and pint glasses," says BDO spokesman Robert Holmes.

"We live in the shadows of the days when players were always smoking and drinking and were hugely overweight.

Corporate packages

"There's a real working men's club image attached to the game, which is difficult for some people to see beyond.

And while the game is still played by "working men", it has grown and attracted people from all walks of life, he adds.

Where once a corporate beano might have involved a trip to the races - or at least a few laps of the local go-karting track - companies are now treating their staff to days of throwing arrows.

Mr Holmes says: "Darts corporate packages are certainly becoming more popular, and that's really because the game is a lot of fun.

Clubs springing up the world over

"And a lot of other people are taking up the game too. People are fed up with staying at home watching videos and playing on their computers - they want to go back out and socialise, and what better way to do that than play a game?"

For all its image problems, darts appears to be enjoying a worldwide renaissance, with clubs sprouting like mushrooms across Europe and other parts of the world.

India recently fielded its first team at a World Darts Federation event while Fiji put forward representatives for the Winmore World Masters.

[ image: A fun, family event]
A fun, family event
A quick trawl through the Web reveals scores of teams and events in countries where pubs aren't even an option.

And it looks as though the Dutch - whose minister for sport was present at his countryman Raymond Barneveld's second clinching of the Embassy World Darts Championship at the Lakeside centre in Frimley last week - have accepted darts as their second national sport.

Austin Brown, spokesman for Lakeside said interest in the championship was greater this year than for quite some time.

"We have a capacity of 1,200 to 1,300 and the tickets sold out in days," he said.

'Slimline young men'

For a week, BBC2 screened the gripping action from Frimley every night.

The BDO's Mr Holmes said: "You didn't see smoking or drinking because it is against the rules now.

"We had to take the necessity for a change there about 10 years ago. Even though our sponsor is Imperial Tobacco, no smoking or drinking is allowed in the players' arena."

Desperate to see the game recognised as a sport, the BDO also points to the fact their players are now "generally slimline young men".

[ image: Ray Barnaveld: From postman to millionaire in a year]
Ray Barnaveld: From postman to millionaire in a year
"Raymond Barneveld is a big bloke, there's no getting away from that, but he lost a couple of stones before the tournament."

The organisation insists that during the daytime its competitors are to be found either jogging or in the weight room.

"A lot of them do boxing training as well because it strengthens their arms," said Mr Holmes.

"The standards of the game are getting higher - the average for each dart thrown in the competition was 30.29, which is higher than ever before.

"Raymond Barneveld got 39 180s. You can't score like that if your legs have difficulty supporting your weight.

'You have to be fit'

"It's not like snooker where they just walk leisurely around a table and just use their arms. You have to be much fitter to play darts at that level."

Perhaps even more surprising than the reported robust health of darts supremos has been the attention given to the game in general by the quality press over the past few days.

Maybe the young British middle classes like to "slum it" from time to time.

But in the same way young professionals like to dine out on bangers and mash, broadsheet readers have been lapping up lengthy articles on a game which even stalwart supporters admit has a dingy image.

And tuning into the Embassy championship coverage has become trendy.

"We're glad of all coverage," says Mr Homes, "Although a lot of the articles are poking fun at us. But who knows, we may end up with even more enthusiasts as a result of them."

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