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Why darts players are perfect athletes

Simon BarnesJanuary 5, 2015
16-time world champion Phil Taylor has the perfect action to dominate his sport © PA Photos

There is a tendency for all sports to evolve a body-shape perfect for the purpose. Every sport acts as a selection device: the people who excel at the sport tend to have similar body-shapes. And while there are always exceptions, even in the most regimented of sports, it's unarguable that basketball players tend to be taller than the average and jockeys tend to be shorter.

Which brings us to darts. Darts has been a subject of mockery ever since it was first televised back in the 1970s and that's because of the body-shape of the players. They really don't look like finely-tuned athletes but overweight, flabbily unfit, pasty-faced, and with big bellies supported by a big frame.

Dartists have their brief place in the sporting round at this time of year. On Sunday night Phil Taylor, 16 times a world champion, lost dramatically to Gary Anderson in the final of the PDC championship; the rival circus, run by the BDO, carries on until January 11.

The utter unsportsmanly appearance of darts-players was exaggerated in those early years by the uninhibited taste for drinking pints of lager throughout competition, and for that matter, pulling on cigarettes. As the great primordial champion Eric Bristow said: "You can take darts out of the pub, but you can't take the pub out of darts." The drinks have now been removed from the field of action, but the jokes - and the bellies - remain.

Darts has become a national joke and a simultaneous national fascination

Darts has become a national joke and a simultaneous national fascination. The skills are obvious, but so are the shapes of the players. One of the things that happen when you watch an awful lot of sport is that you begin to see things in a different manner. You become acutely aware of what different sports have in common

Thus darts is not about being large and drinking pints, it's about finding your best game under the worst stress. Hitting doubles is a small skill, perhaps, when compared to some of the highest things that sport has to offer, but it's as much about the search for excellence in a limited field as anything you see at the Olympic Games. In short, these people aren't messing about. You can laugh, but for them it's serious. It can't be anything else.

It follows, then, that the prevailing darts-player shape is no accident. It's not something that has come about through laziness or boozing. You don't achieve a high level of competitive skill without terrifying quantities of work. I remember Bristow's mum explaining to me that Eric's secret was his dedication. At first I thought that was hilarious, but then I actually listened. She talked about practice, endless practice like a musician: hour after hour, day after day.

So don't tell me that a person so completely dedicated to the pursuit of perfection is unfit. It would be a contradiction in terms. Fit means suitable: the survival of the fittest doesn't mean survival of the strongest, it means survival of the most suitable.

Cristiano Ronaldo's physique probably wouldn't work for Phil Taylor © Getty Images

And those bodies of the top darts-players are supremely fit; ideally suited to the task of throwing darts. As sprinters are muscular and distance runners are skinny, as fast bowlers are rangy and top batsmen (Don Bradman, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar) often on the small side, as high-jumpers are tall and lean and as shot putters are tall and very wide, so darts-players are the shape they are.

You can understand all this in the simple beauty of Taylor. Sure, go ahead and laugh: a chunky little fellow in a smock, broad of shoulder, large of forearm, with a round head and face: not exactly Cristiano Ronaldo.

But in sport, truth is in the action and to look elsewhere is always wrong. So observe Taylor in action and observe truth, for it's as perfect a thing as you will see in sport. First notice the complete stillness of the head. Most players tend to shift their head slightly at the moment of release, not Taylor.

Now look at the action, in which the moving parts have been reduced to a minimum. Hand, wrist and elbow move, but the shoulder moves very little indeed, and the rest of the body is a statue. The simpler and the more practiced the action, the more consistently it can be repeated, even under intense psychological tension. That's the secret of this kind of sport. Ask a golfer.

This action of minimal movement requires very precise balance and very great control. Such things are made possible by body-shape, by the rock-solid base on which the movement takes place. Raymond van Barneveld, another ex-champion, looks as if you could mount a siege-gun on his and he'd absorb the recoil.

The demands of sumo wrestling have created a certain very specific body-shape; an athlete of more conventional shape - say, a Greco-Roman wrestler - would be unable to cope with the specific demands of sumo. If you go to the super-heavyweight weightlifting at the Olympic Games, you find enormous men with generous amounts of adipose tissue distributed about their persons because that's the right shape for the job of lifting the world above your head.

Darts players are shaped like darts players because that's the optimum shape for the task

In the same way, darts players tend towards their own specific shape: big shoulders, powerful frame, and yes, frank counterweight bellies. Taylor won the world championship eight times in a row; in 2003, he lost three stone and with them the championship. It was suggested that this change in body-shape had affected his balance.

Swimmers tend to have wide shoulders above tapering bodies, but with large hands and feet; a physique brought to something close to a logical conclusion in Ian Thorpe, the Thorpedo. Rugby union prop forwards are more or less cubic. Goalkeepers are exceptionally tall.

And darts players are shaped like darts players, because that's the optimum shape for the task that lies ahead of them. As said, there are exceptions, but it's been demonstrated across the years that the traditional darts-player shape is - all else being equal - the most suitable for playing darts at the highest possible level. A darts player is not a mistake, he's a highly-tuned, specifically evolved top-level performer. Like Usain Bolt, only different.

Raymond van Barneveld looks like he could double as a siege gun base as he throws © Getty Images

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Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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