Purity, passion, drama: darts’ renaissance continues in tournament for the ages

Forty years ago this month, at the height of darts’ first great tungsten rush, Jocky Wilson left Jollees nightclub in Stoke clutching a world title and a cheque for £6,500 – about £26,000 in today’s money. It is a measure of the sport’s renewed popularity that whoever lifts the PDC World Championship trophy on Monday night will pocket £500,000.

And while the final ‘Oi, Oi, Ois’ are yet to ring out across Alexandra Palace, it is already safe to hail this year’s tournament as a vintage edition. When Michael Smith outpowered Jonny Clayton in a last 16 final-set tiebreak it was instantly hailed as a game for the ages. But such was the quality in so many subsequent matches, including Smith’s 5-4 victory against the world No 1, Gerwyn Price and Peter Wright’s 6-4 slugfest over Gary Anderson – during which Wright hit 24 180s, a record for a world championship match – it may not even have been the best encounter of the week.

Meanwhile a nine-dart finish was once so rare that in 1982 the sponsors offered £52,000 for anyone who could land it – eight times bigger than the winner’s prize. No one did. Yet when Price achieved the feat against Smith on Saturday it was the third of the tournament – a record. An average of a million people watched last year’s final. Would anyone be surprised if that figure was surpassed on Monday when Wright faces off against Smith?

So what accounts for the popularity of darts? To these eyes its pleasures come from its purity – dart and board, eye and nerve – combined with its unremitting pressures. After all, there are few sports where the gap between perfection and failure is so slim; where the adrenaline surge of hitting a 180 can so abruptly morph into a public shaming if three darts for a double are spurned; where a player must think, to calculate where to throw next, but not overthink, as then the tension and heckling will buckle the mind with doubt.

It is a sport with so many momentum shifts it could be played on a seesaw. And at the highest levels, when players throw for a leg or set or match every 90 seconds or so, darts becomes almost a combat sport. True, an opponent cannot hit. But they can constantly wound.

It perhaps helps that darts remains a sport where you don’t have to be fast-tracked into an academy, or born with a silver spoon in your mouth. The Scottish player Peter Wright was a tyre fitter before making it as a professional in his mid-30s. His compatriot Gary Anderson, his opponent in Sunday’s semi-final, was a builder. With their pot bellies and tattoos, they look more like us than most elite sports stars.

Longevity, too, may play a part: incredibly Paul Lim, “the Singapore Slinger” who played alongside Wilson in 1982 was still good enough to play in this year’s world championship at 67.

Wilson, of course, was the ultimate darting rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags story. He grew up in desperate poverty, including years in a children’s home, before he began playing in the mid-1970s while on the dole. Famously he had no teeth. Early in his career his dentures fell out during a match and in the excitement he trod on them.

When the Observer went to the 1980 world championship they found Wilson wandering about with “cans of beers in his pocket, needing a shave, and with bits of dried fruit in his pockets”. At one point a girl from the sponsor Embassy gave the players 200 cigarettes each for the night. “They smoke so many free fags all the week that they are coughing their hearts up by the end of it,” our man noted – including Wilson, who played with a cigarette lodged in his non‑throwing hand.

But Wilson could play, and how. Two years later he beat John Lowe in the 1982 final despite arguments with the press, leaving the stage in tears after a row with Alun Evans, and the roof of his council house in Kirkcaldy collapsing during the tournament. “It was not a particularly good final,” Matthew Engel wrote in these pages. “Lowe was off by a millimetre or so, and millimetres are more significant in darts than in any sport except mountaineering.”

That victory allowed Wilson to buy a house of his own. Tragically over the years his drinking (the commentator Sid Waddell famously quipped that Wilson would “win darts matches when other people would have been in intensive care”) took its toll and the Scot ended his days back in the council estate where he grew up.

Meanwhile a sport that was once the sole preserve of pubs and working men’s clubs is now attracting interest from academics. One recent study examined 29,381 matches and found that, if both players could win the match with just one dart, performance at youth and amateur level worsened by 10%‑26%, while for professionals it dropped less than 1%.

That is a striking finding given the abuse that top players face at crunch moments. It has been particularly bad in this 2021 tournament, with the sozzled crowd telling the Welshman Price that he was “a sheep-shagging bastard” and barracking and booing non-English players. The unwillingness of the announcers to properly call it out remains a lingering stain.

Meanwhile another study showed observers could accurately decipher how a top darts player would throw based on their body language. Typically, faces showed more expression and anxiety – with preparation times shorter – before a poor throw than before a good one.

Of course darts has its detractors. But even they would have to accept that a sport that has zig-zagged from boom to bust, schism to lengthy separation, and from resuscitation to renaissance over the past four decades is booming, and now as much a part of the Christmas and New Year furniture as hangovers and failed resolutions.