Obiena emerges from the brief lull of a controversy and pledges loyalty to flag and country
Ernest John “EJ” Obiena still wants to represent the Philippines in international meets and the resolution of his conflict with the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (Patafa) will pave the way for him to gun for the podium in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
In a lengthy Facebook post, the current world No. 6 pole vaulter said he has no plans of accepting “lucrative pay packages” from other countries despite the ongoing rift with his mother federation.
“Even now, in this current crisis, I have no desire to change nations,” Obiena wrote in his post just before Tuesday midnight. “I see these statements on social media and active encouragement to switch allegiances. But this is not who I am and why I do this.”
“I want to win for the Philippines and show the world what we can do. I want to win for us.’’
Obiena’s post lit social media on the day the Philippines celebrated the life of one of its fiercest and finest national heroes, Andres Bonifacio, and eased speculation he would go the way of chess Grandmaster Wesley So, who switched to US citizenship to chase opportunities that he claimed he couldn’t find here. So also had a bitter falling out with sports officials just before bolting the country.
“We are lucky that EJ thinks that way, that he considers himself foremost a Filipino and has that pride of competing for our country,” said Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Rep. Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino. “As a Filipino, not just a sports official, I was among those who prayed he wouldn’t accept offers from other countries.”
Tolentino declined to further comment on the issue because the POC’s ethics committee is currently probing the mess between Obiena and the Patafa. With the probe ongoing, the POC has requested parties to keep their silence on the issue.
Obiena said he had already turned down lucrative offers from several countries before, and he won’t be changing his mind, fractured relations with the Patafa notwithstanding.
“It is also true I have been approached several years ago already by other nations, floating lucrative pay packages to compete for their flag,’’ added Obiena, the only Asian in the top 10 of pole vault’s world rankings.
“I said ‘no’ several years ago. I have always believed that loyalty is a core virtue. I love my country. I am proud to compete for the flag of the Philippines. I get chills every time I hear our anthem played and [when I] watch the flag rise high,’’ said Obiena.
“Every time I step on the podium I force myself not to cry. From my athletes ego, I take pride and joy to win and win even when I’m not ‘supposed’ to be the victor. I will never abandon my nation because of money. That’s not loyalty. At least not how I define it.’’
Obiena was reacting to a recent interview of his mentor, Jim Lafferty, who revealed that Obiena has standing offers for naturalization from several countries. Neither Lafferty nor Obiena mentioned any country, but an Inquirer source revealed that China is one of the persistent suitors of the University of Santo Tomas standout.
Obiena has Chinese lineage, albeit one already watered down by the passing of generations. Also, Chinese pole vaulters haven’t made a dent in the athletics world stage. Bokai Huang and Jie Yao are 40th and 42nd in global rankings.
There is speculation Italy, where Obiena has set up camp for training, is also interested in the Filipino star. Italy’s top pole vaulter, Matteo Capello, is ranked 78th. Great Britain and Germany, two other countries that reportedly have offered Obiena citizenship, have no athlete in the top 10.
Obiena’s vow to stay a Filipino means he will be flying the country’s colors when he chases a podium finish in Paris in 2024, after finishing 11th in the pole vault final in Tokyo, where he admitted feeling off in the qualifying round.
But gaining redemption in the French capital three years from now means Obiena will have to fix his current feud with the Patafa, which recently accused its athlete of falsifying liquidation reports regarding the salary of his Ukrainian coach, the legendary pole vault star maker Vitaly Petrov.
“I cannot accept to be accused of false allegations and have my reputation smeared,’’ said Obiena. “Speaking of loyalty, this is the foundation of my strong defense of these allegations. When one values loyalty, one cannot comprehend how my own ‘mother organization’ turned on me, never consulted with me, never asked me any questions, never gave me the benefit of the doubt.’’
The Patafa also demanded the return of 85,000 euros (over P4.8 million) representing Petrov’s wages and froze further financial aid to Obiena pending the resolution of the matter.
Obiena has denied allegations that he misused the funds.
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