MANILA, Philippines – What appeared to be a stellar year for EJ Obiena turned tragic as the Filipino pole vault star got entangled in a messy rift with the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) and is now in danger of being dropped from the national team.
Coming off a historic performance for breaking the long-standing Asian record, Obiena found himself in hot water after being accused by PATAFA of estafa, which allegedly includes falsifying liquidation documents for the coaching fees of his Ukrainian mentor Vitaly Petrov.
It has been months since the relationship between Obiena and PATAFA turned sour, but there seems to be more to be uncovered.
Here is the timeline of the Obiena-PATAFA fallout:
Obiena landed at 11th place in the men’s pole vault finals of the Tokyo Olympics.
Even as the only Asian to reach the finals, Obiena admitted it was a disappointing finish for him as he came to Japan with the goal of winning a medal for the Philippines and vowed to come back stronger.
Fueled by his Olympic letdown, Obiena snagged silver in the Paris Diamond League, finishing only behind world record holder and Tokyo Olympics champion Armand Duplantis of Sweden.
Obiena broke his personal and national record after clearing 5.91m in the meet.
PATAFA president Philip Juico talked to Petrov and pole vault legend Sergey Bubka, who is currently serving as the president of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine.
Petrov also coached Bubka throughout his illustrious pole vault career that saw him win an Olympic gold medal and multiple world championships.
In 2014, Juico introduced the Obiena family to Bubka, who helped pave the way for a young EJ to train in Italy under the tutelage of Petrov.
Juico claimed it was during their September 9 conversation where Petrov revealed he had not been paid since 2018 and signed a document detailing his salary concerns.
Obiena shattered the Asian record on the way to bagging gold in the Golden Roof Challenge in Austria.
The last man standing, he surpassed 5.93m to leapfrog Kazakhstan’s Igor Potapovich, who set the previous mark of 5.92m in 1998.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that PATAFA ordered Obiena to return €85,000 (around P4.9 million), alleging the Olympian falsified liquidation documents for the salary of Petrov.
On the same day, Obiena – together with Petrov – refuted such claims and said he will file a defamation and slander complaint with the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), International Olympic Committee (IOC), and World Athletics against PATAFA.
His funding cut since August, Obiena also threatened to retire from the sport and demanded PATAFA to retract the statements it made against him and publicly apologize.
PATAFA said it will continue its investigation against Obiena as Juico noted documents showed Obiena only paid Petrov his entire salary in November 2021, contrary to the liquidation reports he submitted in previous months and years.
Later, Obiena blasted PATAFA for its shifting allegations against him from embezzlement to late payments.
Obiena admitted to the late payments, but said he should not have been given the responsibility to pay Petrov directly and process his finances as he is focused on training and competing.
“I am not an accountant. This is not a crime,” Obiena said.
Juico doubled down on the alleged liquidation discrepancies committed by Obiena.
According to Juico, Obiena fully paid Petrov his €85,000 salary through transactions made only on November 4, 5, and 9 from two banks in Dubai and one in Germany.
Juico questioned the authenticity of liquidation reports submitted by Obiena as these stated that he also paid Petrov not just in 2021 but also in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
The Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) took on the role of mediator and asked Obiena and PATAFA to refrain from issuing statements to the public.
Jim Lafferty, an American sports patron who has been supporting Obiena’s career, bared the 26-year-old has been receiving multiple passport offers from other countries following his steady rise in the world rankings.
Lafferty, though, was quick to note that Obiena is adamant in his desire to continue representing the Philippines even amid his rift with PATAFA.
Obiena confirmed offers of “lucrative pay packages” to compete for other countries and said has been pursued by these nations for several years.
But Obiena turned down these proposals, saying his goals of donning the national colors and winning medals for the country remain.
“I am fighting to bring honor and glory for my country. Others fight for ego or power. But that is not me. I fight for higher principles,” Obiena said.
Petrov hit out at PATAFA for its “witch hunt” and claimed the association “tricked” him into answering a questionnaire that is now being used in the case against Obiena.
In his signed statement, Petrov formally withdrew past statements attributed to him and said it was Juico who initiated discussions regarding his salary.
Petrov repeated Obiena paid him the full €85,000.
“I know EJ is trustworthy, and I know he is good [with] the money, and I know he is overburdened by administration to start with,” Petrov said.
The PSC pulled out from its offer to mediate between Obiena and PATAFA after the pole vaulter opted to let the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finish their respective processes related to his case.
Still, the PSC kept its doors open to potential mediation between the two parties.
Following the recommendation of its Ethics Committee, the POC declared Juico persona non grata and no longer recognized him as the president of PATAFA.
The Ethics Committee concluded that Juico “harassed” Obiena by making “malicious public accusations” and that the accusations against the Olympian insinuated theft.
POC president Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino also assured Obiena that he will continue representing the Philippines even without endorsement from PATAFA.
Juico vowed to contest the persona non grata decision and said the POC does not have the jurisdiction to declare him as such.
According to Juico, the issue between Obiena and PATAFA should be resolved within the association, with the POC being allowed to intervene only when there is “no satisfactory solution.”
Obiena ends the year at No. 6 in the world rankings, just behind Duplantis, USA’s Christopher Nielsen, Sam Kendricks, and KC Lightfoot, and France’s Renaud Lavillenie.
PATAFA recommended the immediate expulsion of Obiena from its national team pool after its investigative committee deduced the pole vaulter and his mother Jeanette, who works as a PATAFA auditor, misappropriated funds allotted for the salary of Petrov.
The association also recommended filing a criminal complaint of estafa against Obiena over €6,000 euros (P350,000), the amount which was supposed to be paid to Petrov from May 2018 to August 2018.
Other recommendations included the termination of Petrov as a PATAFA coach and the declaration of Lafferty as persona non grata.
Later in the day, Tolentino called the decision as a “vengeful act” by Juico and promised the POC will fight for Obiena.
For his part, Obiena said he is ready for all cases and charges filed against him and reiterated his desire to continue representing the Philippines on the world stage.
“I am hopeful that I will have my fair day in court and that I can finally end this baseless witch hunt,” Obiena said.
Encouraged to take action, the PSC called on PATAFA to reconsider its recommendation of dropping Obiena from the national team.
PSC chairman Butch Ramirez said due process should be observed as Obiena was not given the chance to appeal his case.
The PSC also asked the POC to review its decision on declaring Juico persona non grata.
Heeding the call of the PSC, PATAFA deferred its decision to drop Obiena from the national team by giving him and other involved parties a two-week window to provide explanation on the liquidation reports.
PATAFA chairman Rufus Rodrigruez said the association crafted its recommendation without the side of Obiena as he failed to appear before the investigative committee despite being given three chances.
Tolentino said the POC will help Obiena look for private funding if PATAFA pushes through with his expulsion.
PATAFA formally confirms its participation in the mediation to be facilitated by the PSC.
The association will be represented by Juico, Atty. Aldrin Cabiles, and Alfonso Sta. Clara.
Obiena turned down the mediation offer of the PSC, citing “bad faith” from the PATAFA.
While PATAFA agreed to the mediation, Obiena claimed the national sports association omitted the fact that Juico deliberately sought the signed affidavit of Bubka and Petrov, with PATAFA even shouldering all costs.
“Darkness is the home of the oppressor. I want the truth out in public, the same public where I was judged as guilty without due process by Mr. Juico,” Obiena said.
Obiena said he wants structural change in Philippine sports.
Juico remained persona non grata after the POC general assembly voted in favor of the decision.
Thirty-six members of the general assembly, including Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz, voted to enforce the recommendation of the POC Ethics Committee that resulted in Juico no longer being recognized as PATAFA president.
Still, Juico vowed to continue the “quest for truth, accountability, transparency and justice in our federation.” – Rappler.com