Saturday, 12 June 2010

Should Darts be in the Olympics?

I shall have to find some way of filling the barren wasteland between televised events with stuff to blog about, and one way of doing this is to revisit some of the hoary old darting debates, and I thought I'd start with this one: should darts be in the Olympics?

This particular debate is very good at bringing forth the preconceptions, snobberies and prejudices that many people who scoff at the idea of darts as a sport labour under, and does get the juices flowing on both sides as darters leap up to defend their sport from those detractors who, for some reason (probably related to unhappy childhoods), seem to have nothing better to do than to denigrate the achievements and interests of others.

A good example can be found in this article from the Guardian in 2006 - "Should Darts be included in the Olympic Games?", in which Phil Taylor argues yes and Tom McNab, former director of coaching for British Athletics, argues no. It's rather old, but it demonstrates the prejudices very neatly.

The title of the article concerns appearing in the Olympic Games. Many sports are recognised by the International Olypmic Committee (and are thus Olympic sports), but do not actually appear in the Olympic Games. These include Bridge, Chess and Ballroom Dancing. Why should these be recognised Olympic sports, but not darts? It's not always clear whether McNab is arguing against darts appearing in the Games or becoming an Olympic sport at times, but his views of darts would presumably be much the same regardless, so it is those I shall examine.

Permit me to fisk:

"The first problem for darts obviously is the fact that its governing body is not actually recognised by the International Olympic Committee. For the games beyond London 2012, only sports represented by recognised federations may be considered to become Olympic sports and only Olympic sports may become part of the Olympic programme. The list of recognised federations does not include darts."

Well spotted, Tom. Recognition is what we are looking for.

"Secondly, in a more trivial way, it's hard to imagine putting forward a sport in which you can drink beer while doing it. There are a few sports I can think of where you might have a drink afterwards but not many that permit you to have one beforehand."

I would be the first to admit that darts has had a problem in this respect; however, darts has made enormous progress in cleaning up this aspect of the sport over the last 30 years. The World Darts Federation (which includes the BDO) Tournament Rules prohibit alcohol consumption during matchplay; the Darts Regulation Authority Rules (which the PDC plays by) prohibit the consumption of alcohol during televised matchplay, but do not, I must admit, specifically forbid it during any matchplay. Since I do not watch non-televised PDC matches, I cannot comment on what goes on during them (if anyone else can, please do) but I would be staggered if any professional players, or serious amateurs, drank during matchplay.

Since McNab sticks up for chess at one point, here are some enlightening quotes from the English Chess Forum:

"I always find the amount of alcohol consumed by players at chess matches staggering (no pun intended), particularly considering most of them drive to and from the venue. :shock: There's probably a genuine legal issue there."

"Even at the European Club Cup in Feugen , whilst drinking was banned at the board due to it being a high level event (the only event in the world at the time to offer the 7 round norm). Outside the playing hall was a beer van where you could drink during the game if you desired. Note that you had like 40 of the worlds top 60 at this event."

Except in cases where someone who has had a drink could pose a danger to themselves or others (shooting, archery, motorsport etc.) I can think of few sports in which the governing body directly prohibits alcohol consumption for a specified period prior to a match; football club managers, for example, set their own rules. If a sportsman was obviously affected by alcohol during play then that would surely be dealt with under general rules of good conduct. If the amount consumed is insufficient to have any affect on their standard of play or conduct, who cares? Dennis Taylor admitted that before the final frame of the 1983 Snooker World Championship he had a drop of brandy to steady his nerves. Is that such a terrible thing?

"Thirdly, I think the most important point is that for a sport to be considered for the Olympics it must represent a minimum level of physical activity. I know people will say that darts does entail a certain level but then so does marbles. Look at the bellies on these guys; some of them are more like places than people."

This sounds like he's seen one picture of Andy Fordham, so he's qualified to call darts players generally overwieght (Simon Whitlock, Steve Beaton, Colin Osborne, Jelle Klaasen, Co Stompe...?). And being overweight automatically negates any level of dedication, focus, competitiveness and physical skill? That's just prejudice - "You can't be a sportsman, you're too fat." The derogatory language doesn't help either.

"Darts does involve a physical skill, however, but no obvious physical exertion. Throwing a dart to a small area involves a great deal of physical skill, but then so does skipping. Chess is regarded as a sport in Russia but the top chess players do have to train: physical activity stimulates the brain and so they engage in that in order to play better chess."

I hadn't realised that the rules of chess require players to engage in a minimum level of physical activity to qualify for tournaments; oh wait, they don't. So you have to exercise to play chess, because it stimulates the brain, but in darts you just switch your brain off? That's just prejudice as well; anyone who has bothered to watch top-level darts can see how much mental strength and focus it requires.

"Where it falls down is that darts does not really involve any degree of physical exertion. Darts players would level that argument against archery or even curling, but they do at least involve some; in fact drawing back the string of a bow involves quite a lot. And curling requires the competitors to exert themselves physically as well."

And in shooting, competitors shout "Bang!" before sprinting down the range and pushing their bullets into the target do they? I enjoy rifle and pistol shooting; they require a lot of skill to do well and are rightly counted as sports. Yes, guns are heavy; you need exceptionally steady hands, arms and controlled breathing to shoot accurately, but then you need them in darts too. Unless you're participating in a pentathlon or a war, shooting does not require great levels of aerobic physical exertion.

"It is not easy to define a sport - you can make all sorts of arguments both ways. Where sports involve aesthetic elements, such as ice skating or dressage, there is an argument to be made against those because of the subjective nature of the competition. But look at the level of physical exertion involved in something like ballroom dancing, which could also be considered for the Olympics. Consider Darren Gough on Strictly Come Dancing for evidence of that. Ballroom dancing has a huge number of participants around the world as well and I wouldn't argue against it being included in the games."

"Fishing people would make a similar argument based on the numbers participating, but again it's difficult to define fishing as a sport on the grounds of physical exertion. It is at the parameters of where sport ends and a pastime begins. Sport England regards weight training and jogging as sports so it is not a matter of whether there is direct competition involved."

You read it here first folks: it's not about direct competition, it's all about physical exertion. What he fails to tackle, which I believe in a balanced argument he should, is why cue sports are classed as Olympic sports. If cue sports can be classed as Olympic sports, why not darts? If he doesn't believe they should be, it seems only fair to say so. In any case, Sport England has recognised darts as a sport since March 2005, almost a year before this article was written.

"When the modern Olympics started, Baron de Coubertin wanted to include cricket - and it was, in the Paris games of 1900. They had the same problem of which sports to include in those days."

"In the early years of the Olympics what was included and what was not was pretty arbitrary. In the 1900 games croquet was also in, and you don't exactly lose your breath playing that. But just because croquet was in the Olympics 100 years ago does not mean darts should be in now."

You don't lose your breath playing chess either, but a couple of paragraphs ago you were defending it. You don't have to have an active physical training regime to be a good chess player (though I do not doubt that many do), nor is there any requirement for chess players to pass a physical fitness test before entering tournaments. Either a proper sport requires aerobic exertion during matchplay or it doesn't; make up your mind.

"The spirit of Olympism in terms of sportsmanship and competition remains but I think the IOC has to be quite objective about which sports it admits. There is a minimum level of physical activity which is required and that means darts cannot be considered."

I'm always a little sceptical about the "Spirit of Olympism" (see doping scandals, accusations of corruption, lavish pay and perks for Olympic officials and vast corporate sponsorship passim); when applied to darts, it often seems to be code for "we don't want fat people with tattoos and chunky jewellery in the same event as our clean-cut heroic-looking athletes". And even if there is a minimum level of physical activity required for participating in the Games themselves (shooting?), there evidently isn't for being an IOC recognised sport, otherwise bridge and chess wouldn't be there.

*End of fisk.*

There is a certain snobbery against darts; the fact that, more than any other, it's seen as a working class pub game, whilst not stated out loud, seems to pervade much of the public discussion about the recognition of darts as a sport, by the IOC or anyone else. Many of the things said about darts to prove it's not a proper sport apply to other sports which are recognised, but that seems to be forgotten about.

The snobbery row has often surfaced regarding Honours for success in sport. Eric Bristow and Phil Taylor have both received the MBE, but we all know that if Phil Taylor had been 15 times World Show Jumping Champion, he'd be in a civil partnership with Prince Charles by now.

There is, however, a much greater snobbery than class (football, after all, is primarily a "working class" sport) at play here, and it can be seen in McNab's use of the words "Spirit of Olympism"; sporting snobbery. Darts, darts players, and darts fans, simply do not fit the image of pure sporting nobility - heroic, clean-cut, sinewy young men and women, stepping forward in a quasi religious atmosphere of reverential sporting glory, epitomised by the Olympic torch, to demonstrate what is best and noblest in human sporting endeavour. Chanting, drinking darts fans simply do not have a place in this golden (yet false) vision of the nobility of man epitomised through pure athletic competition.

Phil Taylor does not look like a sporting hero, an embodiment of man's pursuit of sporting excellence, to these people; the fact that he is more successful than any other sportsman in recent history does not matter; to protect the "purity" of sport as they see it, they must rubbish darts.

Very long post, very tricky issue. For those who enjoy a long weekend read :o)

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