EJ Obiena

PATAFA vs Obiena: The mess no one needed

Ariel Ian Clarito
PATAFA vs Obiena: The mess no one needed
There was no way PATAFA could win the battle of perception not because EJ Obiena was already deemed guiltless by people, but because Filipinos have witnessed time and again how Filipino athletes have not been treated fairly by sports officials

It need not have come down to this. 

The rift between the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) and pole vaulter EJ Obiena has escalated into one big mess that has seemingly reached boiling point. It has turned into a he said, she said ping-pong of accusations hurled by both parties at each other, with muck in large enough quantity to make an athletic field practically unplayable.

The controversy begs a number of questions:

Why was this issue brought out in the open to begin with and not resolved, or at the very least handled, discreetly and internally by PATAFA? Is the conflict truly between the NSA, in this case PATAFA, and Obiena, or is it actually just between PATAFA president Philip Ella Juico and Obiena? Was it necessary for PATAFA to remove Obiena from the national team?

Of course, there is the matter of which side really is telling the truth, but this appears to have been relegated to the back burner despite its importance largely because the issue has been overtaken by histrionics and amor propio the size of an Olympic stadium.

The moment it was leaked to the media, whether by design or by accident, that PATAFA was conducting an investigation of Obiena on the grounds of alleged embezzlement of funds, the issue became a public concern, aside from the simple fact that the funds in question are taxpayers’ money. The moment the issue blew up online, it became a trial by social media subject to the interpretation, opinion, biases, and even angst of a wary citizenry.

PATAFA could have immediately defused the maelstrom that was brewing. It could have said its piece, stayed low and quiet, and just continued with its investigation, if indeed it believed there were anomalies that were committed. 

Instead, it chose to go on a publicity mano-a-mano against Obiena which PATAFA was bound to lose. Social media is an arena where personalities have already been prejudged by netizens. There was no way PATAFA could win the battle of perception not because Obiena was already deemed guiltless by people, but because Filipinos have witnessed time and again how Filipino athletes have not been treated fairly by sports officials. When asked to choose, the citizenry will side with athletes over institutions which across the entire spectrum of Philippine sports and throughout history have mostly been found wanting by both athletes and the general public.

Which is not to say that Obiena is above the law. No athlete, no matter the status or prominence, should be allowed to deviate from policies put in place by sports governing bodies to institute order and structure in their organizations. 

And that is why Obiena should be given his day in front of an investigative body that is free of any repute of being a mob of witch hunters, a forum where he could potentially clear his name, the very same thing Juico requires of the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) which declared him persona non grata. The investigative body can then determine whether the breach in policy, if any, was a result of gaps in the organization’s processes, or of moral turpitude. 

Either way, an organization which has its head on its shoulders should have tools at its disposal to address the issue. These should enable it to analyze the root causes, the mitigating factors, and the overall impact of the alleged infraction. What should not be included among the corrective actions is shooting from the hip and summarily kicking out the supposed errant member of the organization. Dropping Obiena from the national team was a lost opportunity for the NSA to examine its existing practices to determine how to avoid the same incidents in the future.

It also reeked of shortsightedness pretexted as upholding values and integrity, a rather lame attempt to try to convince the entire country that all the blame rests on Obiena, that the PATAFA is merely fulfilling its righteous mandate to safeguard resources that belong to the government. It also leads people to conclude that the decision to remove Obiena from the national team was infested with vindictiveness bordering on pettiness.

Part of the mandate of an NSA is to protect its athletes and to produce athletes who will bring honor to the country. Yes, it should dispense proportionate administrative actions against recalcitrant athletes when warranted, but this should be balanced with showing professionalism and with being corrective. PATAFA preferred to be like Cobra Kai, to strike first and be punitive.

Obiena is the only Filipino ranked in the top 10 in the world in any event in athletics. He has spent years away from the country, away from his family, to build himself into the elite pole vaulter he has become. He has raised the country’s flag mightily on so many occasions. He deserves his fair chance to explain himself.

He also deserves the privilege to represent the Philippines. Filipinos want him to. It should not be up to just an individual or a small group to arbitrarily decide that the only ones who should be wearing the Philippine colors are athletes who bow to the whims, dictates, and power play of sports officials.  

The sad reality is that athletes in the country, a lot of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds, are often subjugated by sports officials who leave no room for dissent nor for question. Eumir Marcial. Hidilyn Diaz. They who spoke up and were treated as pariah until they won on the world stage which brought them back to the good graces of officials who previously silenced them. Wesley So. He who said: “To be poor and unconnected in the Philippines is to be trash for rich people to step on.”

There is leadership, and there is compassionate leadership. There is also accountability. If only these values were exemplified by people involved in this issue, then maybe it would not have turned out to be the big mess it has become. Somehow, misplaced pride and gargantuan egos always find ways to ruin sports in this country. The Philippines just might be the ideal place to write a book entitled The ABCs of How to Drive Away World-Class Athletes. – Rappler.com