Darts gets a royal shot in arm

Prince Harry's big night out a boost for the working-class pursuit ... but gentrification can be a two-edged sword.

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The sport of darts is incredibly pleased with itself right now. It is patting its own back with such vigour that one fears a spark of friction-generated static might leap from its polyester shirt and ignite the highly combustible atmosphere at one of its showpiece events. (Imagine the hairspray and aftershave fumes wafting off the players during the World Championship. It would be like a scene from Backdraft.)

Darts is on the up, you see. For decades it struggled to shed its image as a pub game for lowly oiks with big bellies and bulging forearms obscured by smudged tattoos bearing the name of whichever grim industrial town in which they were spawned (Stoke, usually). And that was just the women.

No, the Establishment laughed, darts is no more a sport than dominoes or bingo. Pay it no heed, they chuckled. They are not chuckling anymore.

This week Prince Harry, the third-in-line to the British throne, enjoyed a night at the Palace. Not Buckingham Palace, where his grandmother lives, but eight miles away at the Alexandra Palace theatre, where the World Darts Championship (WDC) were taking place.

This was no official engagement (he tried to sneak in while the lights were down) but a private night out for the young prince and his well-heeled chums including Will Greenwood, the rugby union international.

Some observers claimed Harry's presence that night says a lot about the new breed of royalty. I claim it says more about the new image of darts.

Just as the early 1990s saw English football's shiny new Premier League phoenix rise from the ashes of hooliganism and crumbling stadiums, so the winter of 2010/11 has seen a darts butterfly emerge from its chrysalis.

Only last month, in another milestone of mainstream acceptance, darts legend Phil "The Power" Taylor took second place in a keenly contested BBC poll to choose the Sports Personality of the Year, beating contenders including world No 1 golfer Lee Westwood and former Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton.

So why darts, and why now? Partly it is a long-term yielding of the wise decision to follow snooker's lead in cleansing the sport of alcohol and cigarettes.

Partly it is the increasing skill of the players, led by the sublime Taylor. Nine-dart finishes used to be a rarity, but Taylor hit two in the Premier League final last year, and his protege, Adrian Lewis, rattled one off in the WDC final on Monday.

Partly it is the growing realisation that a night at the darts is what sport should be about: highly skilled showmen, unashamed theatricality, raucous crowd participation, sporting behaviour, and a pervading sense of … well, fun.

So I do not begrudge darts its belated acceptance and burgeoning popularity, but I do offer a word of warning.

You have a wonderful sport (or game, or leisure pursuit, or whatever the purists want to call it). In 20 years' time, when you are complaining about the gentrification of your sport, and the loss of its soul - rising ticket prices, the prawn-sandwich brigade, player power (when "Wuuuunhundddredandeighteyyyy!" is not a maximum-score celebration but the start of a weekly wage negotiation) - remember that you wanted this.

You opened the gates of your humble citadel to bask in the warm sunshine of mainstream approval. Now you may struggle to close them.

The question is, as your masters of ceremony like to bellow before every match: Are you ready?

An untimely death prompts cliches - and some warning bells

Warning: the following passage contains several whopping cliches, for which I make no apology. They have rarely seemed truer.

Gary Mason, the ex-heavyweight boxer who died in a road accident on Thursday, was a gentle giant (ding!). No mug as a fighter - he lost only one of 38 professional matches, to Lennox Lewis, no less - he was also a family man whose charity work continued long after his boxing career ended.

He was, for example, a founder member of the Bunbury Cricket Club XI (alongside Eric Clapton), which has raised £12 million (Dh68m) for charity.

Frank Bruno, his contemporary, once said that Mason was technically the better fighter but lacked the unwavering dedication necessary to reign supreme. In other words, he was too human to be a sporting legend, which sounds bad for the trophy cabinet but probably good for the soul.

His untimely death, at 48, proves that life is precious (ding!) and none of us know what lies around the next corner (ding!).

Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao should consider this cliche as their long-awaited bout becomes mired in legal nitpicking.

So, too, should David Haye, the WBA heavyweight champion. His long-awaited fight against Wladimir Klitschko was to have taken place on July 2, but Haye threw a tantrum when the Ukrainian announced a bout with Dereck Chisora on April 30, five weeks before the alleged date with Haye. If he insists on retiring before October, this setback could be his last.

Mason's death should remind these gifted and privileged men that we do not get long on this earth (ding!) and that quibbling over details should not derail what boxing fans long to see and they have trained so hard to do: fight. You are, after all, a long time dead (ding!).