Columns, Sports

McCoy ’14: No Longer For British Eyes Only

Experiencing the majesty of professional darts

By
Sports Columnist

Spending last semester abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland, I experienced cultural differences that shaped me emotionally and spiritually, providing me a worldview the likes of which anyone who hasn’t been abroad (i.e., you) could never understand. On this mystical journey, I immersed myself in culture, became one with the locals and became a caring and contemplative world traveler that a mere year ago I never thought myself capable of.

Don’t get me wrong — I had a great time abroad, met some wonderful people and visited some amazing places. But I tend to be cynical and facetious when looking at the trite introspections the aura of “studying abroad” often tends to connote. My cynicism over the life-changing experience motif, however, comes with one caveat. There was one thing in the U.K. I am not afraid to say changed my life — professional darts.

Pro darts competitions are quintessential British kookiness. At times it feels like you’re watching the inevitable next-in-line of the Kingpin, Dodgeball, Blades of Glory and (dare I say) Balls of Fury lineage. Combine this absurdity with insane dart-wielding skills, and you get an exhibition you cannot look away from.

Let’s start with the athletes themselves — yes, athletes. Your average professional darts competitor is an overweight, beaten-down looking middle-aged man who has, in all likelihood, spent the past 40 years of his life in front of a dartboard. But that is not to say these champions lack personality. The player introductions are akin to WWE entrances — the lights dim before the darters strut out accompanied by an entourage including foreboding-looking men in suits and glamour girls. My personal favorites included those of the Australian competitor, a guy with a long goatee and braided ponytail who peacocks out of the tunnel to the tune of “I Come From a Land Down Under,” and 52-year old Phil “The Power” Taylor, who enters beneath strobe lights to Snap!’s 1990 hit “I’ve Got the Power.”

If one thing beats the entrances, though, it’s the nicknames. Players are christened with such hyperbolic monikers it’s hard to believe they are given seriously. There is the 55-year-old Denis “The Heat” Ovens, who never once demonstrated any semblance of emotion in his 45-minute-long match I watched one night. (Don’t judge.) Legends of the game include Eric “The Crafty Cockney” Bristow — a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — and John “Old Stoneface” Lowe. The list of inane nicknames is seemingly endless, but I found myself partial to the likes of Barrie “Champagne” Bates, Darryl “The Dazzler” Fitton and Nigel “The Undertaker” Heydon (not to exclude, of course, Steve “The Muffin Man” Hine, whose day job is baking).

The electric personalities of these darters are only matched by the atmosphere at events. In hall-of-fame-worthy juxtapositions, these middle-aged guys methodically toss darts while a hype man in a tuxedo belts out their tallies, as what most closely resembles a beer hall creates a deafening din behind them. To get an idea of this circus, imagine if golfers lined up their putts at Augusta National while Oktoberfest took place in the gallery. Fans often show up in costume, and scanning the crowd might reveal a complete Men Without Hats cover band or a dancing Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. The stereotypical British drunkards, upon seeing a pot-bellied, balding man ambling back and forth between a throwing line and a dartboard, respond in turn by belting out a slurred chorus of “Seven Nation Army.”

But it’s not long before the intensity of the athletes grows to match the fervor of the crowd. Through all the pageantry and splendor, there is no denying these guys are good — and it’s clear they know it. As the match heats up, muted celebrations begin to peek out and the shuffle up to the board to retrieve one’s darts evolves into an all-out swagger. Then come the myriad variations of celebratory screams and fist pumps.

The most demonstrative of all, though, is one of the sport’s rising stars: the Dutchman Michael “Mighty Mike” Van Gerwen, who closely resembles the hypothetical child of Mr. Clean and the Michelin Man. In this December’s World Championships, Van Gerwen threw a perfect “nine-darter” in one game and came one dart shy of repeating it in the next — a feat never before achieved. As each dart plunked the board, the crowd responded in turn with sharp and abrupt roars. On the last perfect dart to take the first game, the debaucherous masses erupted into full-on pandemonium, prompting Van Gerwen to pivot on the throw line and spread his arms out with a smug smirk, basking in his own greatness as if to say, “Are you not entertained?!”

Combining all this silliness with the sniper-like accuracy with which these assassins perform their craft, watching professional darts was a surprisingly mesmerizing spectacle I could not look away from. Routinely, I would find myself rendered an irresponsive vegetable in the pub, staring blankly at the screen alongside my flatmate, both of us tuned out of the surrounding music and impervious to any attempts at human interaction. The U.K. is famous for many things, among them Hugh Grant, Mrs. Featherbottom and your mom’s favorite upstairs-downstairs period drama. But if I could have strengthened our two nations’ supposed “special relationship” and brought anything back to the States, my choice would be clear.

Darts is what I need. It’s what you need. It’s what America needs.

 

Ethan McCoy ’14 once had a dart thrown in his leg but doesn’t hold any grudges. He can be reached at ethan_mccoy@brown.edu

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