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An athlete on board
John Part has put Canada's dart scene on the map. But don't tell him it's not a sport. Dart players don't drink or smoke like they used to. And now they even stretch

Friday, July 12, 2002                              
TORONTO - Dressed from head-to-toe in black with his hair combed back like a classic movie villain, Darth Maple struck an imposing figure as he discussed his life as a professional darts player.

His eyes were sharp and he looked unamused as he entered a midtown pub for an afternoon meeting. Every effort was made to live up to his intimidating nickname, which Darth Maple himself created on his rise to becoming the third-ranked thrower in the world.

In his home town of Oshawa, Ont., Darth Maple is John Part, a former University of Toronto student who has excelled at a game commercially successful only in parts of Europe.

At the pub, with a pair of tournament-ready boards staring back at him, Part ordered a soft drink and talked about darts, a game that is both fuelled and scarred by its own hazy alcoholic image.

Darts players were once famous for their ability to smoke and drink on stage between throws at televised competitions.

"It's not as much of a joke as many people might think," the 36-year-old said. "It is an actual endurance test ... not in the sense of a marathon, I'm not trying to compare it to a marathon or anything like that."

At first, the players' health and habits endeared them to fans in England, but eventually, they were held up to parody and derision.

"I was watching Sumo wrestling on the television for two hours before I realized it was darts," British comedian Hattie Hayridge once said.

But now, as the Professional Darts Corporation runs 30 to 40 annual events based out of the United Kingdom -- four of them televised -- many players consider the game a sport and themselves athletes.

"I don't consider myself to be a physical dynamo," Part said. "But mentally, I'm an athlete, yeah. It involves focus and training of sorts. Fitness helps, it really helps.

"Some of our matches can go on for two hours on stage, when you're on your feet the whole time and you're under hot lights. To retain mental focus, you need physical stamina."

Throwing darts can also lead to injury, not the devastating type suffered by hockey or football players, but enough to impede play.

There have been reports of players wrenching their knees while retrieving darts from the board and arms can stiffen up just before competition.

Part has some fitness tips on the Professional Darts Corporation's Web site.

"Extend your arm down from the shoulder and rotate it both ways, stretching your muscles each way," he wrote. "Bending your wrist back and forward as you stretch your arm will help to get more stretch. Any time you feel tired or your arm tightening up, the stretching can be quite helpful."

But there are some injuries that cannot be prevented. The dart can bounce off the wire framing on the board with alarming speed and strike back at the player.

"I haven't had one lately," Part said. "Sometimes they'll stick in your foot through your shoe."

He sheepishly admitted that he does not usually wear shoes while practising at home, leaving his feet open for injury.

But the worst Part has ever suffered was a near miss, when he sacrificed the palm of his hand in order to protect his groin from an incoming dart.

"It was really coming back fast and it wasn't going at my hand," he said. "It was all I could do to get the hand there. It was reflex."

Part has been throwing for 15 years, competitively since 1989, and competes in 30 to 40 tournaments a year. He is on the road for more than 100 days and spends more than $50,000 on travel and lodging.

In return, he has developed a name for himself overseas.

Part became the first player outside of Europe to win the Embassy World Championship, in 1994, and is still the only North American to capture the event.

"It put Canada's dart scene on the map, internationally," said Phil Robertson, president of the National Darts Federation of Canada. "Every time we go to an event now, Canada is looked at as one of the top contenders."

Darts is popular in Canada, he said, but the challenge is to find a sponsor willing to support the sport and back a jump onto television.

"The image is really changing on the international scene," he said. "Here, locally in Canada, we have had the no drinking and no smoking rule since 1989."

Throwers are allowed to sneak away from the stage for a drink or a cigarette during a break in play.

"There's always a stereotype you can find, someone who lives up to it," Part said. "Myself, I'm overweight. A year ago, I was 30 pounds lighter. It's very difficult on the road."

Part, who won the Canadian title earlier this year in Saskatoon, can earn around $100,000 in prize money -- enough to cover his travelling expenses and leave him enough to live on.

"There's nothing glamourous about it," he said. "It's probably a lot like what pro athletes used to be like in the first half of the 20th Century -- happy to make a living like a normal guy and playing baseball or whatever instead of having to go to work."

 Copyright 2002 National Post
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