August 5, 2023


Studying the Limits of Human Perfection, Through Darts (New York Times, August 05, 2023)

Today's athletes may be more skilled than their predecessors. But they are often playing with better equipment or technology that can boost their scores. Darts is no exception.

The darts themselves have improved. They've become thinner, making it less likely that previously thrown darts will crowd out the board.

But the triple-20 region has also grown in size, because of a change in the construction of the board. In the early 1990s, the wires that separate the scoring sections were as thick as 1.8 millimeters in diameter, according to Lee Huxtable, a production designer at Winmau, a board manufacturer. But they are now closer to 0.6 millimeters wide.

These small changes have increased the height of the triple-20 region to roughly 9.4 millimeters from 8 millimeters. In addition, the wires are now less rounded and angled toward the target. This means darts are less likely to bounce off the board and more likely to be directed toward the triple-scoring segments.

Scores have improved since the days of the old boards. Thirty years ago, John Lowe won the world championship with a three-dart average -- the standard metric for tracking player performance -- of 84. Smith had a three-dart average of 101 when he won this year's championship.

It's hard to ascertain how much of the improvement is because of the boards and how much credit should go to the athletes themselves. "I know that the players from the '90s, like Eric Bristow, John Lowe, Dennis Priestley and Jocky Wilson, would have 100 percent competed with the players of today," said Phil Taylor, who won 16 world championships from 1990 to 2013.

Tougher tests
In other sports, the challenges have gotten tougher. A standard outdoor competition in recurve archery -- using the traditional bows without wheels or pulleys -- included targets as close as 30 meters until the early 1990s. Now archers shoot from 70 meters. If the 30-meter round were still held today, it would "be kind of boring," said Brady Ellison, a three-time Olympic medalist for the United States. The top archers would essentially never miss.

Top scores from recent Olympics at 70 meters are comparable to the best scores at 30 meters half a century ago. If today's archers were shooting at 30 meters, they might score 358, 359 or even a perfect 360, Ellison said.

(Part of the improvement can be credited to technology: The bows are thinner, so they are less affected by the wind, and made from machined aluminum instead of wood.)

Professional bowling has also opted to set conditions that make perfection harder, so much so that the good league bowlers at your local lanes generally score higher than the pros on tour, said Tom Clark, the commissioner of the Professional Bowlers Association. It's because of the differences in how oil is applied to the wooden surfaces of the lanes. Although virtually invisible, oil patterns in bowling are immensely important and dictate how much the ball will hook.

"House shot," an oil pattern used by most recreational bowling lanes, provides a larger margin of error and usually leads to higher scores. Since the late 1970s, the P.B.A. has used oil patterns called "sport shot," which make the game fairer because they are standardized -- but also make it more difficult because they are less forgiving.

Still, average scores have increased since the first P.B.A. Tournament of Champions. Clark believes "the bowler has gotten better" over the decades.

Who knew bowling had gotten so wild...

Posted by at August 5, 2023 12:00 AM