Sometimes it's hard to see the point of it all


THERE ARE a variety of ways for the sportingly inclined to keep warm in the winter's chill. Fancy foreign footballers do it in tights, in Dallas, the Cowboys do it chemically. But one area of sporting endeavour doesn't seem to worry about the vagaries of the weather darts.

Like Newcastle United fans, whatever the wind-chill factor, darts practitioners never wear anything but shirts. Taking a lead from the walrus and insulating themselves with kilos of heat-preserving blubber, they trundle to the oche and just get on with it.

Dougie Donnolly, introducing the BBC's highlights of this week's Embassy World Professional Darts Championship over shots of a frozen lake outside the venue in which the chuck-off was being held, set the scene: "It may be cold outside, but inside the competition couldn't be hotter."

Though, maybe it could. These days, darts stands as something of a warning to all those sports which might be tempted to get carried away by a bit of television exposure and a hint of gentrification.

Fifteen years ago, darts was big, big, big. The World Championship had prime-time exposure, Martin Amis wrote clever pieces in Sunday broadsheets about the purity of its contest. Champion Eric Bristow was honoured by the Queen for his services to sport.

Then, perhaps as its new followers began to realise what it was all about, darts started to slip from its pedestal. The Embassy was relegated to the late-night slot on BBC2 usually reserved for those with opinions above their station. Martin Amis returned to his roots (tennis) and Bristow has spent the last few years battling against a nervous ailment called dartsitis, an involuntary shake of the throwing hand familiar to many a pub player the morning after a big night.

Sensing crisis, the game accelerated its decline by tearing itself apart. About five years ago, the old and past-it, like Bristow and Jocky Wilson, who happened to be the only names anyone knew, set up their own competition, the World Darts Council, held at the appropriately named Circus Tavern, Purfleet, the week before the Embassy.

Here, with the assistance of SkyTelevision, they borrowed the razzmatazz of American wrestling and enveloped themselves in a frenzy of hype. It was daft, it was hopeless and it was easy for the establishment to mock the rebels' disinclination to accept they were no longer good enough to win the real bauble.

But the problem was, the departing dissidents took with them the television commentator Sid Waddell. Never mind Crafty Cockneys, more than anyone else it was Sid who popularised darts. It was the tension between the excited verbosity of his delivery - "Oh, the sound of tungsten! The smell of the crowd!" - and the innate silliness of the game that had made it a favourite with lovers of irony everywhere. Now he was gone from the mainstream and stuck on satellite presiding over a veterans' road show, what was there to laugh at anymore?

Tony Green, the BBC's replacement, does his best. But we knew Sid Waddell and, frankly, Tony is no Sid. Take, for instance, Green's summary of Monday's fluctuating Embassy first-round action: "If you want headaches, this is the place to be". Or his efforts at word-play while describing one competitor, whose generous midriff betrayed many hours' sacrifice at the bar: "One of his hobbies is playing chess. And I'm sure he's had a few draughts as well."

Sid, meanwhile, was heard on Sky last week suggesting that the feeling on landing a bull's-eye was "as good as Jason and the lads finding the fleece".

Four years ago at Frimley Green, I met a bunch of chaps who had got together at university as The Sid Waddell Appreciation Society. Every year since leaving, armed with Sid's aphorisms, they had block-booked a couple of nights out at the Embassy, to gorge themselves on the daftness of it all, to wallow in the frenzied way in which the audience reacted to a couple of fat blokes throwing bits of metal for hours on end at the same part of a tiny little board. Also, to sink a few pints.

Recently, I ran into one of the lads by chance. Was he off to Frimley in January as usual? I wondered.

"No," he said. "It kind of petered out, fewer and fewer of us were interested anymore. Now Sid's not around, there's not much point."

Darts, it appears, has caught a cold not even a pair of Ravenelli-style embroidered mittens could keep out.