ONE Saturday afternoon when I was 10, my dad bluntly interrupted Wide World of Sports to announce he'd bought a Beta video recorder, resplendent with a shiny, tripwire-tethered remote control. This of course rendered membership of the local Video Ezy pointless, given the dark and sparsely stocked dungeon within the shop that was the domain of unfortunate Beta owners. That said, being the only one in the house who could program the "damned thing", at least now I could enjoy television's jewels scattered through the midnight-to-dawn hours.
In the mid-1980s there was no bigger sport than professional wrestling, at least in my world. Unfailingly I would, each week, record the next dose of fantasy-land lunacy from the world of the WWF – as it was then known before it lost a trademark stoush with a homonymous organisation with a panda bear in its logo – and then replay ad nauseum The Young and the Restless a la King Kong Bundy. The fact wrestling is about as real as a daytime soap opera was never really lost on me, although to this day I have a mate who swears it's "90 per cent real, you know".
Wrestlemania III, played out before a crowd of 93,173, was broadcast in prime-time on Channel Ten on a Friday night in March 1987. Try that in 2014. The undercard went for so long I had to change tapes half-way through so as to not miss the piece de resistance, which pitted Hulk Hogan against the "Eighth Wonder of the World" Andre the Giant. That tape got so overwatched it snapped and clogged the ageing Beta so badly it jettisoned it into technological oblivion.
Which brings me to my point: over this Christmas/New Year, a henceforth unbendable sporting tradition has been established in our house, a generation later: world championship darts. My father-in-law, 10-year-old son and I are moderately addicted. There exists a simple yet indescribable, almost hypnotic, attraction to watching a sporting event that celebrates the God-given right of a man to step out, braving the bitter chill of a London winter, dressed as a hot dog. Then again, dressing as fast food might be considered mild in a crowd populated by leprechauns, superheroes and Sesame Street residents.
Binoculars are a necessity to actually see any action on the dartboard, even from smack bang in the front row of the crowd. So, dressing up as Grouchy Smurf and imbibing god's nectar seems an eminently reasonable way of passing time between regular opportunities to go barmy at the mere holler of "onnnehunnndredandeeeeiighhhhhhtttyyyy" or on hearing the opening strains of an omnipresent ditty penned by some obscure Italian electronic dance-music ensemble.
Juxtapose that image with the ever-so-charming attitude of the fun police deployed inside the SCG this weekend, whose collective apoplexy is spiked by the mere sight of a half-inflated beach ball or turgid stack of empty plastic cups.
THE essence of darts is to try to spear tiny targets, a fraction the size of a postage stamp, from seven and three-quarter feet away. This is hardly a spectacle that should demand prolonged attention, yet for the last however-many mornings I have sat utterly transfixed, and I think I've worked out why. Darts is what so many other sports have ceased to be: real, unpretentious and fun. Here is a sport that is not manufactured, not contrived and – unlike wrestling – not pretend. The world of professional darts knows squarely what it is, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else.
Perhaps this is the fantastic marriage of precision, sublimity and ridiculousness, but whatever it is, it renders practically all other sports ever so slightly muted (leaving aside Brett Lee's recent failed assassination attempt on Piers Morgan). Imagine how Tiger Woods might react trying to play a clutch shot under pressure, with Kermit the Frog twerking suggestively in the periphery of his dagger-laden gaze.
The darts world is one inhabited by everyday-man characters of fat, short and lean proportions, interspersed with the odd crusader who looks like they'd be more at home kickin' back in a Hells Angels compound than standing behind the oche. Players who are routinely beckoned to the stage with raucous applause and blaring theme music, whether it be the ageing legend Raymond van Barneveld channelling Rocky III with Eye of the Tiger, some portly fella with a kaleidoscope mohawk and a snake painting adorning the left side of his head, or my new favourite sportsman, Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock, entering the bullring to the strains of (the somewhat predictable) Down Under.
So many aspects of modern professional sport are detached, sterile and somewhat inaccessible. Yet, maybe these barons of the bullseye represent the antithesis: athletes who are accessible, and actually interesting. In all of the post-match interviews I've watched in the past fortnight (and scarily, there's been more than a few) I'm yet to see the darts equivalent of the perfunctory "one match at a time" boring-a-thon, the likes of which is delivered so routinely in other sports by very well remunerated athletes apparently challenged by the concept of complete sentences. Professional Darts Corporation chairman Barry Hearn sums it up best. "It's a sport for the people because the players are just like them, just normal blokes. It's not like football, where they jump into a Ferrari, speed off, have a crash and then jump into their second Ferrari."
Darts might just be rock'n'roll wrestling for the 21st century. It's little wonder tickets to watch this circus under the big top at Luna Park last August were rarer than the proverbial rocking horse excrement.
IF I could have one wish for professional sport in Australia in 2014 it's that I want something richer, more colourful, and bloody well more interesting. More interesting than the banal soap opera of taking it a week at a time and building momentum towards the finals, interposed with riddles of peptides and the umpteenth artistic camera shots of James Hird's plantation shutters and rendered front fence.
I want professional sport to be fun again. Yeah, I know all that stuff about football being "much, much more important" than life or death – and no doubt it's not only football that it applies to – but the enjoyment that a game brings to those with who it seeks to connect is surely more important than the game itself.
The Australian Sports Commission publishes The Essence of Australian Sport – What We Stand For. It is predictably filled with utopian motherhood statements and management-style doublespeak sprouting plans, policies, principles and ideals. The ASC's motives are credible, but the document's publication evidences the ASC's impotence if the disaster of the past year in Australian sport is a fair measure. A year dominated by however many scandals involving drugs, match fixing and – in the case of Blake Ferguson – blatantly criminal behaviour. A year when nefarious activity dominated the headlines when the abiding image should be of Adam Scott, clad in Augusta green, arms outstretched while standing in the teeming rain.
For most Aussie children, an interest in sport at some stage is inevitable. For mine, I don't want them to be preached at by government, nor do I particularly care for my son blindly putting some overly preened plastic footballer on a pedestal. As far as I'm concerned, my kids could both do a helluva lot worse than look up to a 44-year-old ponytail-wearing ex-brickie with a ZZ Top beard and a penchant for wrinkle-free green-and-gold polyester. Adam Scott will do just fine also.
I saw NRL chief Dave Smith in the crowd under the big top last August. Hope he was taking it all in. If not, well at least the darts is back in Sydney next August. Da dada dada da dada dada da dada dahhhha, oi oi oi.
Darren Kane is a sports lawyer based in Sydney