In his own way, EJ Obiena adds to unmatched stretch of PH sports successes
MANILA, Philippines–In winning the country’s first medal in the World Athletics Championships, EJ Obiena further polished a successful stretch and proved that when looking for a golden era in Philippine sports, there is no need to reach too far into the past.
If there is a greater sporting age than this current one, it is yet to come.
The 26-year-old Obiena clinched a historic bronze medal in pole vault—the country’s first podium finish in the global athletics showcase—with a 5.94-meter leap, establishing a new Asian record in the process. Reigning Olympic gold medalist Armand Duplantis of Sweden again ruled the meet by establishing a new world record of 6.21 m.
American Chris Nilsen, the runner-up in the Tokyo Olympics, cleared 5.94 on his first try and got the silver via the countback after Obiena needed two attempts to make it.
“We tied at the same height and I was definitely close [to the silver],’’ said Obiena, who is on a roll this year with six gold medals in the European circuit, a string of accomplishments that could hopefully culminate in a medal at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Obiena’s feat is the greatest in recent Philippine athletics’ history and underscores the kind of dizzying heights the country’s athletes have reached in the last two decades—roughly the span of a generation.
“In recent history, no one from Philippine athletics has matched what he has achieved,” said Philip Juico, the former track and field chief.
“And arguably, we are witnessing the best stretch of success in Philippine sports right now,” added the former Philippine Sports Commission chair.
Boxer Manny Pacquiao and weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz have shouldered most of the glory in that span of time.
Pacquiao, generally considered as the greatest Filipino athlete of all time, redefined pound-for-pound greatness by shattering weight barriers and becoming the only boxer to win world titles in eight different weight divisions. Diaz, on the other hand, is the first Filipino to win a gold medal in the Olympics, making history in last year’s Tokyo Games. She also owns a silver medal from the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Greatest golf feat
But others have found their place in Philippine sports history too.
Yuka Saso, also a Tokyo Olympian, highlighted her string of successes in international golf by becoming the only Filipino—male or female—to win a golf major. That feat puts her atop golf’s pantheon.
“It’s the greatest achievement of any golfer,” said Tommy Manotoc, the multidiscipline sportsman who represented the Philippines several times as a golfer and who is a former president of the National Golf Association of the Philippines. “The US Open is the toughest test in golf. There’s no comparison unless someone wins a tournament as prestigious and as tough.”
Saso may have opted for Japanese citizenship, but Manotoc pointed out that her highlight reel is made up of feats she pulled off while still a Filipino.
Gymnast Carlos Yulo, meanwhile, is a two-time world champion, who like Obiena has dominated the Asian and Southeast Asian (SEA) arenas.
“Caloy is obviously the best gymnast we’ve had,” said gymnastics chief Cynthia Carreon. “And he’s our best bet for medals in the world championships and the Olympics.”
And just recently, the national women’s football team gave the Philippines its first international football trophy and a historic World Cup berth.
“The Filipinas are the greatest Philippine football team in history,” said Philippine Football Federation president Mariano Araneta Jr. in a message to the Inquirer from the sidelines of the East Asian Football Federation Championships in Tokyo.
“Their achievements are unprecedented. They have qualified for the World Cup, got a bronze medal in the last SEA Games and won the AFF (Asean Football Federation) Women’s competition. We are very fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to form this team and witness its greatness.”
Until the feat of Obiena, who is also the first athletics standout from the Philippines to make an Olympic final in recent history, the likes of Lydia de Vega-Mercado and Isidro del Prado were the poster celebrities of track and field. And, although Obiena’s feat will still be a notch below Olympic bronze medalists Simeon Toribio (high jump) and Miguel White (hurdles), there is no doubt the Tokyo Olympian is the new face of athletics in the country.
After all, to put his 5.94-m leap in context, that same effort would have beaten Canada’s Shawnacy Barber for the pole vault gold in the 2015 World Championships.
“We won medals at the continental level, but I don’t remember any track and field athlete who had a better accomplishment than him (Obiena) since I got into sports,’’ said Joey Romasanta, the former executive director of Project: Gintong Alay, the program that launched the careers of the likes of De Vega-Mercado and Del Prado.
Only another generation of successful athletes can outdo this era, and Junna Tsukii, the first karateka to win gold in the World Games, hopes that is exactly what will happen—at least in her sport.
“I would be delighted to see more gold medals from the next generation. I want their victories to take over from what I have achieved,’’ said Tsukii.
Young stars like Yulo and Obiena have a chance to be a part of that.
“I just hope [Yulo] stays healthy, especially if he competes in the Olympics,” Carreon said.
Obiena even tried to rev up his future by aiming higher during the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
“I believe I had that six meters in me, that’s why I’m a little bit frustrated,” he said of his flubbed attempt to break a new barrier, which he tried once the bronze was already assured. “I don’t think it’s a chance that you get every day.”
Boxing may take a while before finding the next Pacquiao, with the country’s roster of world champions completely decimated this year. But weightlifting has a shot of sculpting the next Diaz-level talent.
Just recently, the Philippine weightlifting delegation brought home 15 gold medals from the Asian Youth and Junior Weightlifting Championships, a competition where it once celebrated winning just a single victory.
Leading the list of potential Diaz heirs is Vanessa Sarno, the 18-year-old phenom from Bohol.
“She’ll join so many international competitions before [the] Paris [Olympics], such as Asian Games, World Championships, and other Olympic qualifying events,” Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas president Monico Puentevella told the Inquirer. “She’s ready for Paris while the others are being prepared for [the] Los Angeles [Games] in 2028. Vanessa, if everything falls in place, will be good for three or four Olympics.”