After centuries of honing their aim and discipline from the invasions of Genghis Khan to modern day recreational festivals, Mongolians are putting down their bows and arrows and taking up darts.
“When we began entering darts competitions, people would say, ‘How can you guys play? We thought you lived in gers [felt tents] and rode horses, do you even have buildings?’” Erdene Mandakh, president of the Mongolian Amateur Darts Federation, told The Guardian.
International ridicule soon turned into amazement when professional players from other parts of the world realized that the Mongolians are formidable opponents when it comes to darts. In May of this year, Erdene won a gold medal at the 9th Asian Darts Association tournament in Hong Kong, defeating 128 teams from around world. In August, Erdenechimeg Dondou took home gold at the International Darts Federation 2013 Darts World Cup in Shanghai.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In Mongolia, where the winters are long and harsh, darts is seen as an inexpensive hobby to pass time.
“All you need is a 2.5 meters wide area. It is not an expensive sport, you can acquire all equipment you need for 250,000 MNT ($146). Once you purchase the equipment, you can use them for many years. If darts break during the game, you can repair them and still use them,” Erdene said.
Erdene’s love of the game is a near-obsession. His 14-day vacation period was spent entirely on honing his skills. He trains every evening after a long day working in a mine. His wife and two elder sons also play the game, and even his toddler is growing up with his own set of darts.
“Inside my home it's darts – and outside the home it's darts … my life is all about darts,” Erdene said.
Darts enthusiast Baatar Tsend loves the game so much that she played on even when a stove set fire to her fur coat. When she was about to give birth, her friends smuggled in a dartboard through the hospital window so that she could practice. Even an appendectomy couldn’t stop her from competing. The urge to hit a bull’s eye is in her blood.
“Since ancient times our people have been practicing archery and ankle bone shooting,” she said. “They've got great aim, so maybe this is in our genes or something: our special Mongolian genes.”
For many professional players, winning in Asia is not enough.
“Of course, our dream is to play against English people and beat them. Our dream is to become the world champions,” said Erdene.
While darts is gaining popularity as a sport in Mongolia, players on the other side of the world are campaigning for darts to be recognized as an Olympic sport. High-profile people from 15-time world champion Phil Taylor to Prince Harry are leading the bid to gain recognition for a sport perceived solely as a game that’s relegated to bars and pubs.
In 2012 professional darts player Adrian Lewis signed a petition that was submitted to the Olympic committee. His argument was that millions of people around the world enjoy the sport. That year, over 21 countries were represented in the world dart championships. Therefore, the game was too big to ignore.
“You get medals for horses doing tap dancing, and bobbing around in a swimming pool with a clothes peg on your nose, so don’t tell me darts is less of a sport than those events,” he said.
Even coaches from other sports are lending their support.
"Darts is definitely an Olympic sport. Look at the fans, TV coverage, audience and real skill under pressure," former rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward wrote on Twitter.
Erdene will have to wait a while for his wish to play against the English to come true. The 28 spots available for the Rio 2016 Olympic program are already full. No bid has been submitted for darts to be included in the 2020 Games in Tokyo. In January the International Olympic Committee announced that even if darts was recognized as an Olympic sport, players would have to wait until 2024 at the earliest, according to The Daily Mail.