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Raymond van Barneveld, right, of the Netherlands may not be a household name but at a darts event he enters the arena like a champion prize fighter coming to the ring.
Raymond van Barneveld, right, of the Netherlands may not be a household name but at a darts event he enters the arena like a champion prize fighter coming to the ring.

Arrows point to a great time at Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters

In truth, darts is one of few sports where the professionals are more often than not in no better physical shape than the rowdy crowds that cheer them on.

"Jocky Wilson what an athlete."

Anyone familiar with the darts player Wilson will appreciate the hilarity of that description by the sport's most famous voice, the late commentator Sid Waddell.

It is fair to say that Wilson, who passed away last year, was not your typical sportsman.

But then again, no darts player really is, despite Waddell's quixotic campaign to paint them as "athletes", "gladiators" and, memorably in the case of the mulletted Steve Beaton, "the Adonis of darts".

In truth, darts is one of few sports where the professionals are more often than not in no better physical shape than the rowdy crowds that cheer them on.

Those fans, however, couldn't care less, and you will do well to find a sporting crowd that lets its hair down and enjoys an occasion the way a live darts audience does.

Now, the noisy world of darts has arrived in Dubai. Over the next two nights the world's top eight darts players will compete for the Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters, the sport's first-ever professional tournament in the city.

First timers, however, are in for a culture shock.

The names of Raymond van Barneveld, Adrian Lewis, Simon Whitlock, James Wade, Andy Hamilton, Michael van Gerwen, Wes Newton and even the Phil "The Power" Taylor may not be familiar to them.

Nor will the nature of the crowd, expected to dominated by fans from Britain, the home of darts.

But whoever wins, it is safe to say there will be a party atmosphere at the Dubai Tennis Stadium.

"It sounds funny, but many people don't go to a darts event to actually watch the darts, but for the pageantry," says Mark Freeman, a darts fan from Manchester. "Sometimes you can hardly see the players from the back and the board looks tiny from the back, but the atmosphere is great."

Some fans, despite years of following darts on television, will be experiencing it live for the first time in Dubai.

"I'd imagine it's little bit like when I was little lad watching the football at [Newcastle United's] St James's Park," says Peter Redding, from Newcastle. "I used to stand at the Gallowgate End, and although sometimes I could barely see most of the match it was a brilliant way to hang out with your mates, sing and enjoy a day out."

Not that the action, and the players' skills, can be ignored.

The sport's growing popularity in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s turned champions into cult heroes.

The likes of Wilson, John Lowe, Bob Anderson and Eric Bristow - regarded as the best darts player of all-time - may not have been supremely conditioned athletes, but they were in every sense, larger than life characters.

But even that image of the heavy stock darts player has shifted in recent years. Sure, no one will be mistaking the oche for a catwalk tonight, but nor will those oversized shirts be bursting at the seams either.

Over the last three decades the game of darts has transformed itself into a serious professional sport. In 1993, an infamous split in the sport resulted in the formation of two separate organisations, the original British Darts Organisation (BDO) and the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), both with their own world title championship.

Most of the game's big names crossed over into the PDC as a consequence.

Since the split, one man has bestrode the darts landscape unchallenged as the master of all he surveys - Taylor.

He has won 16 world titles, his most recent being accomplished in January, and he is the sport's most recognisable name. To put it into context he is the David Beckham of darts.

During one overwhelmingly dominant performance, Waddell paid him what must surely go down as the greatest, off-the-cuff, sporting compliment of all-time: "Muhammad Ali. Bjorn Borg. Steve Davis.

"And now Phil Taylor."

These days, however, the sport is no longer dominated by the British contingent. The Dutch, in particular, have excelled in recent times at the game.

And only last week, Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen defeated Taylor in an epic battle in the final of the Premier League at the O2 Arena in London.

It is already being hailed as one of the finest matches in the competition's nine-year history.

Dart's greatest competitor will, in the words of Waddell, "be as happy as a penguin in a microwave" about that loss.

Expect sparks to fly as the sport takes a new step in Dubai.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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