Hitting a bullseye for SA’s least celebrated sport

For many South Africans, darts is a pastime at family gatherings and in pubs. But quietly and resolutely, players like Cameron Carolissen are making a living from it in the international arena.

When sporting minds are cast over the pantheon of outstanding South African athletes through the ages, where greatness is measured by predictably rigid and insular metrics, they’re not likely to find a darts player among the elites. 

Darts, a sport that’s seen by some as a way to keep the elbows limber between bouts of drinking at the bar, is unlikely to make a blip on the South African sporting radar any time soon. That would be no fault of the darts fraternity itself or the individuals playing the game. The sport struggles for recognition in a society that values glamour, prestige and commercial viability over hard work and endeavour.

By and large, today’s protagonists of darts hail from working-class backgrounds, reared by the hands of parents who were robbed of opportunity and status by apartheid laws and confined to areas designated by the architects of an oppressive regime. One of those areas is Strandfontein, 35 minutes outside Cape Town. It’s where Black surfers, who were barred from Muizenberg beach, would congregate.

More recently, Strandfontein was the designated location of a controversial campsite where the City of Cape Town mercilessly corralled its homeless people during the Covid-19 hard lockdown. Strandfontein knows a thing or two about isolation and desolation. However, the seaside town is also home to one of the brightest prospects in South African darts, on whose elbows rest its future as a viable sport in the country – with global influence. 

Cameron Carolissen was born and bred in Strandfontein. He speaks proudly of his upbringing on the False Bay shore, and describes it as “normal”. 

“I would say I’m the last generation who went to play outside. When I was a kid, I played a lot of sports growing up. We used to shoot marbles, play soccer and cricket on the road,” Carolissen says. “I had a good childhood. I grew up with a couple of buddies and we still live in the same area. Yeah, I knocked my head a few times as life went on, but here I am today.”

In the company of greats

Where Carolissen is, is at the top of his game with a handful of international possibilities at the tip of his poised and deadly accurate fingertips. The 25-year-old has accomplished something few South Africans ever have – playing alongside the best darts players in the world, at the World Darts Championships in the United Kingdom last year. Only seven other South Africans have ever reached that platform in the history of the sport. 

“We play live on Sky Sports, the matches are all over the internet, YouTube, you name it. And basically, you’re playing among the top 96 players in the world. It’s the biggest stage in the world of darts. It’s every darts player’s dream to play in that tournament. It’s big money, and that’s the time to make a name for yourself. It’s a dream come true,” Carolisson explains. 

“These are people that I’ve been idolising as the years went by – the people I grew up [with] and watched on TV. I watched them play for years on TV and here I am now classified as one of them, playing in the same tournament, staying in the same hotel, just having a conversation like normal people. It was really great and something amazing to experience.”

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But before he could reach the glittering stage of Alexandra Palace in London, Carolissen had embarked on a 13-year journey that started in the garage at his home in Strandfontein. “My dad played darts, my aunt played darts, my uncle played darts. I was just that kid who was running around in the garage or playing outside when everybody was throwing darts,” he says. 

“I saw what they were doing and wanted to try it out. I picked up a dart for the first time at about six years old. I had my own board that was at my height, and I was throwing and throwing and throwing. It was a case of monkey see, monkey do. Whatever they did, I said I’m gonna try it.”

Soon enough, the young Carolissen fell in love with darts, and he was very good at it. His big break came when he was just 12 years old and his father’s club, Saints Darts Club, was a player short one day. Carolissen’s father asked him to fill in for the missing player. “I was like, let’s do this, and I went to go play. And that’s basically where it all started,” he says.

Carolissen progressed through school at Dennegeur Primary School in Mitchell’s Plain and Wittebome High School in Wynberg as an aspiring junior cricketer. It was a sport that offered far more to a youngster than most other sports. “Cricket was my biggest sport at the time. I was really good at it too. I went to Western Province trials and all those types of things. I was an opening bowler and even bowled to [former Proteas cricketer] JP Duminy.”

All thanks to his dad

Carolissen has endured his fair share of challenges already. He wears them like badges of honour, paying tribute to the one person who has been the driving force in his darts career – even now in absentia. An eye-catching tattoo on his left arm, dedicated to his late father, sums up Carolissen’s feelings about the man who raised him and taught him everything he knows. 

“He was a true inspiration in my life. I always tell people it’s because of my dad that I am the person that I am today. You know that saying in Afrikaans, ‘jy’s jou pa se kind [you are your father’s child]’. It’s a proud moment for me because I’m proud to say that I am my father’s son. He’s my hero. He’s my biggest role model, my hero, so he’s always there,” he says as he strokes his arm. 

“It says ‘Rest in Peace, Dad’. It has praying hands, angels surrounded by clouds, and then a clock without hands which symbolises unexpected death. That’s how my dad died. He was healthy, no medical history, and just like that one heart attack took him.”

Carolissen is among a handful of darts players who have eked out a space for South Africans on the international stage. His path as a professional darts player was paved by the likes of Devon Petersen, Charles Losper, Charl Pietersen, Nolan Arendse and Warrick Scheffer.

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“I’ve always wanted to play with the good guys,” Carolissen says. “I always wanted to play against the best because I wanted to progress so much in the sport. And that drive that I had in me at a young age motivated me to keep on practising. I was hitting a board for three to four hours every day, playing at least five to six days a week. There was never really a day of rest for me. It’s not that I was forced to do it. It’s just that I love the sport so much that I wanted to get better and better and better all the time.

“My goal now is the World Cup of Darts, which will come up sometime in the year. That will be the one major I’ll be focusing on. And next year in January, I’m heading back to England to play in the qualifying school so that I can play for my tour card. I will also try to win the qualifier to go back to the UK to play in the World Championships. I would say those are the three things on my bucket list which I want to focus on.”

Self-reliance and resolve

On any given Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, Carolissen can be seen in action at the Portland Indoor Centre or the Grassy Park Hotel. Although he comes from a community where opportunities are scarce and the temptation to be led astray is as ubiquitous as crime, drugs and violence, Carolissen is made of strong stock. 

“You need a strong mentality. Mindset is key in this game. Confidence is key. If you don’t have confidence in this sport, you’re never going to become good at it. You’re never going to prosper and move forward. Basically, you’ve got to ask yourself, what is it that I need to do to get better at the sport? You need to tell yourself, I can do this, I’ve played here, I’ve played there. You’ve got to ask yourself, what is the next step? And that is where mentality comes in – the mentality of ‘I need to practise, I need to get good, I need to become consistent’. You’ve got to have no fear when you play this game,” Carolissen says with a self-awareness beyond his years.

“I don’t have a mentor because I’m very self-motivated, that’s the person I am. But I am willing to take advice from a lot of people. I do have a guy who’s staying in Mitchell’s Plain; his name is Vernon Bowers. He played in the World Cup of Darts two years back. He partnered up with our top-ranked player, Devon Petersen. People classify us as powerhouses in the sport. We chat a lot with each other in terms of our game. When we are practising, you never know who’s going to win. It’s always a tight game.”

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Darts in South Africa has always operated on the fringes of sport. Darts South Africa is an amateur association that does what it can to keep the sport alive. “To be honest, there is more that needs to be done. Darts does attract a lot of people. I mean, if I give you the numbers some people would think I’m lying,” Carolissen says. 

“When we compete at nationals in South Africa, you’re looking at close to 1 000 people playing. There are about 15 people from each district. Under the association, there are between 50 [and] 200 members. There are thousands of people who play darts. Some people play for enjoyment, some play to become more competitive and take it to the next level. But in terms of sponsorship it is a bit hard, because you know people see darts as not a recognised sport.”

Carolissen has had to take matters into his own hands in order to compete on the international stage, churning out countless letters asking for sponsorship, using his own money he earns as a forex trader and starting fundraising campaigns. 

“In South Africa we only have one body, and I firmly believe that we need to enforce a split so that we can have recognised bodies in terms of an amateur and a professional body. Because that’s how it is all over the world and I think that will basically do good for our sport in South Africa. Once those two bodies are in place and recognised, then I think doors will open for a lot of people,” he says. 

“A lot of people stood behind me and backed me up, to take me over [to the UK]. It was really amazing because it just shows you how many people care and how much belief people have in you as an athlete in the sport.”

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