By Shane Stokes
Irish MTB racing has suffered a big blow with the news that one of its most promising young downhill racers, Jamie Popham, has announced his retirement.
In a press release issued earlier this week, Popham listed a number of reasons for the decision. Monetary conditions are a big factor, these including the controversial decision by the Irish Sports Council to exclude non-Olympic athletes from the International Carding scheme in 2006, plus the reduced funding for international teams. The lack of a sponsorship deal has also made things very difficult.
Popham stated that the lingering effects of a broken ankle suffered in 2004 has also played a part.
The Bray rider highlighted his talent when he finished an excellent fifth in the 2003 European junior championships. He also became the first non-British rider to win a NPS series in the UK when he took the junior series. In 2004 he started the season as highest ranked junior in the world and repeated his fifth place in the European championships for that category. However, hopes of a strong ride in the world championships was dashed due to the ankle injury he suffered in the run-up to the race. He was 23rd there.
Despite his promise, Popham was overlooked for a grant last year by the Irish Sports Council. He appealed the decision and was just one of nine Irish sportspeople to succeed in being re-awarded funding. However, while he secured €4,600, this was far less than the amount he needed to ride a full international programme last season.
"I am disappointed with the result of the appeal as I had applied for an international grant of €11,500, which has been refused," he said at the time. "While the grant of €4,600 will help, the cost of my race season including the eight races of the World Cup Series in 2005 is approximately €20,000. This figure excludes all equipment."
"Some of the races are in Canada, Brazil and the USA and so, without some private sponsorship, my full race program for 2005 is now in doubt."
Popham received some welcome assistance from the Irish telecommunications company Eircom towards the end of the season and this enabled him to do more races than would otherwise have been possible. He had finished second to Ben Reid in the Irish national downhill championships in Mallow, Co. Cork, and was 36th and 40th against far older riders in the World Cup events in Canada and the US. He went to the world championships hoping for a good ride but crashed heavily on the morning of the race. It was thought he would have to pull out of the championships but he insisted on competing, finishing a brave 62nd.
Popham's junior results had showed him to be a real prospect for the future; he and Ben Reid were described by former World Cup winner Steve Peat as strong talents. However it seems now, unfortunately, that his career has come to a close.