The road to immortality takes 168 seconds by hand and has 25 stages. Dart players who want to enter the biggest stage their sport has to offer first have to climb two floors in the Alexandra Palace. Why should the direction change again in the last few meters in this place, where everyone involved has only been going uphill from the start?
Every year in December, the Alexandra Palace becomes the scene of the most bizarre and colorful major event on the sports calendar: the World Darts Championship. Built in 1873, the building sits enthroned on a 95-metre-high hill in north London. “Just the fact that it’s on a mountain makes it so special. You take a cab up there and you see all the disguised spectators. That’s really special,” enthuses Gabriel Clemens. For Germany’s best darts players, the mountain is calling again on December 27 after qualifying for the third round on Wednesday.
As always, the evening had begun for him in the catacombs. In the Players Lounge in the basement, players and their families have four tables with chairs and three seating areas with leather and plush sofas in green, red and blue. A dartboard hangs here to pass the time, and the games from the hall are also broadcast on a screen, but without TV commentary. “The players should not be disturbed in their concentration, for example when one of the commentators or experts gives their assessment of the next match,” explains Dave Allen, media chief of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC).
The room is tastefully furnished. A black and white tiled floor winds around brown pillars, which is extensively covered by a beige carpet. The tiles can also be found in the mural on the left. On the right, the “World Championship Heritage Wall” serves as a room divider. All World Cup participants and the number of appearances are listed in white and gold letters on a wine-red wall. Clemens was therefore the 370th to make it here.
The Saarlander is not far away from his fifth start, at least in terms of time. Most players head to a separate area behind the wall of honor two to three hours before their game begins. There are three more boards that are separated by partition walls. The player may only take one additional person into the area. But apparently unlimited drinks and food. Across from board two is half a roll of cookies, one board down, an empty bag of chips and half a chicken sandwich have been left next to an empty can of lemonade.
Things get serious for Clemens when Mervyn King scores in the first match of the evening to lead the set 2-0. Two sets won on the stage, two floors below are the starting signal for the duel for the throw-off in the upcoming match. Dean Williams, the so-called Player’s Marshall, checks the pros’ clothing and advertising signs and then asks them to throw the bullseye.
Immediately afterwards, the players go upstairs together. Pictures from concerts at Alexandra Palace hang in the stairwell: photos by PJ Harvey, Afropunk, Portishead, Underworld, Slipknot, Jay-Z or Liam Gallagher. Nevertheless, the view remains better below. The stony brown steps are wet and slippery, with water dripping from the ceiling in several places. Humidity is high, although the cold has found its way through the old walls.
Two floors up, you can exit through two fire doors and a small space in between. The players have to cross the camp right next to the fan zone. The floor is asphalted, a small transport truck is parked in front of a roller shutter. PDC employees, who are responsible for the correct scores during the matches, sit in a provisional container.
Dozens of cardboard boxes, metal boxes and rubbish are piled up against the walls, and on top of a stack of pallets lie thousands of the 180 signs that fans hold up after players’ throws. The temperature here is another 20 degrees below that in the stairwell, until a wooden double door allows the players to enter the next climate zone. They turn right across a narrow hallway to reach the next stage destination: the second training area. Two boards hang here and are reserved for the players of the next match.
“In the other halls where we play, the distances are much shorter. It takes less than a minute from the practice board to the stage,” Clemens explains one of the special features, “and then there’s this funny little room with the two sinks and the counter, which has absolutely no meaning.” When exactly he can go on stage depends on the colleagues on stage. “I waited another hour with John Henderson at the World Cup,” remembers Clemens.
After the previous match is over, things have to be done quickly. The two players are led through the “Roman Bar”, an area that is used as a restaurant at other events. During the Darts World Cup, eight employees from the Sky TV station will be here, surrounded by lots of cables and lots of technology. And on a chair at the end of the room sits John McDonald, the man who will call the stage microphone players onto the stage, next to a clothes rail with his shirts and jackets.
Then the room mentioned by Clemens, less than three square meters in size. With two steps you have passed the sink on the wall through the two doors and are again in a large warehouse with a roller door. It’s as cold as the first, and it’s hard to imagine the world’s best players hanging out here during the short breaks between sets. An unadorned toilet truck is available. The smoking ban does not apply here either.
A final fire door leads into the West Hall. The players now stand directly in front of the black cape that the fans know from the other side. You can hear the chants, smell the beer and feel the heat. Then they are led in and suddenly they are right in the middle of it. McDonald introduces each player individually, followed by a walk-on through the audience onto the stage, the last two meters – how could it be otherwise – lead up over eight steps.