Casual remark over the phone sparked EJ Obiena controversy
MANILA, Philippines — A casual remark. That’s all it took for controversy to light up Philippine athletics.
During a phone conversation a month after the Olympics ended, Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (Patafa) president Philip Juico spoke to World Athletics official Sergey Bubka, a legend in the sport, who casually told Juico about a need to help with EJ Obiena’s money problems.
That remark led to a burning issue that has left Obiena contemplating retirement.
The Inquirer, talking to multiple knowledgeable sources and cobbling facts from documents, memos and statements from parties involved, has put together the story of how Patafa and Obiena arrived at a breaking point which could lead to a potentially irreparable rift — one that started when the Patafa wrote to Obiena and reprimanded him for not paying his coach, Vitaly Petrov, despite being extended financial assistance for the renowned mentor’s salary.
The Inquirer reached out to Juico for clarity on the issue, but he hasn’t replied at press time. Obiena, meanwhile, has aired his side in a press conference and in a statement released to the media.
However, sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the Patafa and Obiena have yet to discuss the problem officially since the controversy erupted, told the Inquirer that Juico, Bubka, and Petrov held an audio conference on Sept. 9.
“Popoy (Juico) wanted clarification about EJ’s money problems that Bubka intimated to him in their first one-on-one Whatsapp audio conference on Sept. 8 about EJ’s money problems,” the source, who was privy to the call, said.
It was at that call that Petrov remarked about not being paid his fees, amounting to about 2,000 euros monthly, since 2018, the year he took Obiena under his wing and transformed the University of Santo Tomas star into a world-class pole vaulter. After that meeting, Bubka signed an affidavit that would trigger an investigation.
“…during conversation between me, Philip and Vitaliy (sic), it was learned that Patafa paid Vitaliy (sic) (not directly), the monthly salary through EJ, but on the other hand, EJ claimed to Vitaliy (sic) that he didn’t receive that money and therefore did not give any money to Vitaliy (sic),” Bubka’s affidavit partly read.
“In the conversation, Philip described the situation that Patafa has paid Vitaliy (sic) the monthly fee through EJ in the amount of 2,000.00 EUR every month since the beginning of 2018,” Bubka further attested.
Multiple sources have told the Inquirer that Juico convened the Patafa board on Nov. 10, after the federation’s elections, and discussed the issue. The board said Obiena had filed documents liquidating the money sent to him at times by the federation and on other occasions by the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), giving the impression that Petrov had been paid.
In Bubka’s affidavit, the former world record holder said Petrov received 4,000 euros from Obiena in 2020.
On Nov. 15, Juico, authorized by the Patafa board, wrote Obiena a letter, a copy of which the Inquirer managed to obtain, saying: “…it appears that government funds requested to support your training since 2018, of which you had stewardship, were not used for the purposes in which it was intended…”
The letter also instructed Obiena to return the amount of 85,000 euros (about P4.8 million) within 10 days of receiving the letter.
On the same date, a Patafa committee tasked to look into the issue wrote Obiena a confidential memo, which a source provided to the Inquirer, that partly read: “based on the written statements of Mr. Sergey Bubka and Mr. Vitaly Petrov, including the documents you have submitted to the Patafa, it appears that you falsified the liquidations submitted to the Patafa and failed to pay the coaching fees of Mr. Vitaly Petrov in the total amount of Eighty-Five Thousand Euros (€85,000).”
A highly placed source told the Inquirer that Obiena had already replied to the memos, furnishing the PSC with a copy, and showing documents that proved he had paid Petrov.
The source said it was the same one he presented during his online press conference to refute what he said were charges of “embezzlement” and “theft” leveled against him by the Patafa, accusations that were not on the documents obtained by the Inquirer.
Obiena did pay Petrov
In the same press conference, Petrov categorically said he had received payment from Obiena.
Sources revealed that Obiena had indeed paid Petrov in three tranches, on Nov. 4, 5 and 9—several days before the Patafa fired off two memos seeking the return of what it alleged were unpaid coaching fees.
Obiena, in a statement, admitted he fell behind in paying Petrov because he was training hard alone in Italy, and accounting was a task he wasn’t exactly skilled at.
Why Obiena is tasked with running his team’s payroll is a sticky issue that has gained different responses from all parties.
Bubka, in his affidavit, said the situation was caused by Obiena and said the athlete “manipulated” both the Patafa and Petrov into not dealing directly with each other.
“PATAFA agreed to this procedure as EJ informed PATAFA that it is impossible to sign any contracts with Vitaliy (sic) because Vitaliy (sic) didn’t know English and already had contracts with other Federations, which prevents him from making other agreements. Of course, all this was not true,” Bubka said in his affidavit. “[A]s Vitaliy (sic) told me and as I translated to Philip into English, EJ built a wall between them—Philip and PATAFA with Vitaliy (sic).”
But Obiena, who maintains a very close relationship with Petrov, said the setup is Patafa’s doing.
“The real question is, why doesn’t PATAFA do their job and pay the coaches directly, allowing me to focus on training rather than accounting?” Obiena said in a statement. “They put all the burden on me to perform all administration which I truly believe is not my job.”
Obiena has even requested that for his Paris Olympics preparations, Patafa directly pay his team “to avoid unnecessary banking fees and streamline payment procedure and liquidation.”
Meanwhile, Patafa insiders said it could not pay Obiena’s coaches directly because as it was preparing to take over the payroll of Team Obiena, the pandemic struck. Records show that the PSC thus continued paying Petrov through Obiena. A check for P1.7 million was prepared in the name of Obiena.
PSC chair Butch Ramirez could not be reached for comment. A PSC statement released on Wednesday instead ordered both parties to refrain from issuing further statements until after things are resolved. The Philippine Olympic Committee has also said it will look into the issue, alarmed over Obiena’s feeling that he is no longer “wanted” by his federation.
Obiena has hinted that he wants peace but vowed to fight to clear his reputation. The concurrent probes could help as they seek to clear up whether or not there was indeed any mishandling or misreporting of government funds.