Pole vault

The year EJ Obiena scaled immortality

Ariel Ian Clarito

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The year EJ Obiena scaled immortality

Reuters

More focused and determined, Filipino pole vault star EJ Obiena authors a stellar 2023 as he climbs to greater heights

MANILA, Philippines – In 2023, EJ Obiena vaulted himself to heights never before scaled by any Asian pole vaulter. He amassed a treasure trove of accolades in one year what other athletes would have taken an entire career to accomplish, if at all.

The years prior saw Obiena slowly build himself up to becoming a world-caliber athlete, as evidenced by the 12 gold medals he won in 2022 in various international athletic competitions. This despite the controversies hounding him brought about by his contentious relationship with the previous leadership of Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA). 

The resolution of this dispute in early 2022 finally emancipated Obiena from internal forces whose cantankerous, often antagonistic manner of dealing with the pole vaulter raised the bar even further for him to jump over. 

The result: a more focused and determined Obiena who established himself among the world’s elite in 2023.

The 27-year-old product of UST sent a strong message to the rest of the field from the get-go when he bagged three gold medals in the early part of the season. He ruled the Perche en Or in Roubaix, France, in late January, then followed it up in the very first week of February by edging former world champion Sam Kendricks of the United States and hometown bet, World Athletics Championships silver medalist Piotr Lisek, in the Orlen Cup in Lodz, Poland. The week after, Obiena traveled to Torun, Poland, to claim the top prize in the Orlen Copernicus Cup.

But more than the gold medals, Obiena also achieved a number of milestones that made his season as exceptional as it was momentous. 

He became the first Filipino to book a ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics, earning his spot just when the Olympic qualification season began in July. In the BAUHAUS-galan in Stockholm, Sweden, Obiena soared over the Olympic standard of 5.82 meters to assure himself of a second straight Olympic stint. He also copped silver behind world No. 1 Armand Duplantis, who clinched the gold. 

If ever there were still people unconvinced about Obiena’s status as the undisputed best pole vaulter, today and in history, from this side of the world, he erased every iota of doubt with his dominant performances in three major regional events. 

Obiena became a three-time Southeast Asian Games gold medalist after blowing away the field in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in May. Not only did he retain his throne as Southeast Asia’s pole vault king, he also broke the SEA Games record for the third straight time. His winning jump of 5.65m eclipsed his old mark of 5.46m. 

He was even more impressive in the Asian-level competitions. In the same month he clinched an Olympic spot, Obiena maintained his stranglehold in the Asian Athletics Championships by winning a second straight gold medal in Bangkok, Thailand, in July. He became just the fourth Filipino to win multiple gold medals in the competition, joining Lydia De Vega (1983 and 1987 women’s 100m and 200m), Isidro del Prado (1983 and 1985 men’s 400m), and Amelita Alanes (1973 women’s 100m and women’s 4x400m relay). His new meet record of 5.91m improved the previous record of 5.71m which he set in 2019. 

Obiena proved to be untouchable in the Asian championships as the rest of the participants were left fighting for the runner-up spot. Saudi Arabia’s Hussain Al-Hizam won silver with a jump of 5.56m, while bronze medalist Huang Bokai of China cleared just 5.51m.

It was the same story in the Hangzhou Asian Games held last October in China. Obiena breezed to the gold with a new Asiad mark of 5.90m, shattering the previous record of 5.70m set by Japan’s Seito Yamamoto in the 2018 edition in Jakarta, Indonesia. Huang and Al-Hizam finished 25 centimeters lower at 5.65m, with the Chinese clinching the silver via countback. Incidentally, the trio of Obiena, Huang, and Al-Hizam train together in Europe under renowned coach Vitaly Petrov of Ukraine. 

Obiena’s outstanding display went beyond Asian borders. 

Already holding the distinction as the first Filipino to win a medal in the World Athletics Championships after a historic bronze in the 2022 edition held in Oregon, United States, Obiena did one better by winning silver in the 2023 edition last August in Budapest, Hungary. He once again placed second to Duplantis but surpassed Tokyo Olympic silver medalist Chris Nilsen of the United States and Commonwealth Games champion Kurtis Marschall of Australia, who tied for the bronze. 

As if becoming the second-ranked pole vaulter in the world was not enough, Obiena joined an even more exclusive club in 2023.

The six-meter height in pole vault remains one of the most elusive barriers in the world of athletics. The first to breach the six-meter ceiling was the legendary Sergey Bubka in 1985. Bubka’s coach then is Obiena’s coach today, Petrov.

In June, Obiena cleared six meters to win gold in the Bergen Jump Challenge in Norway. He defeated Americans Nilsen and KC Lightfoot, the US record holder. Obiena joined a special, almost hallowed list of just 27 others who have leapt at least six meters. What is even more amazing is that Obiena cleared six meters twice in 2023 – the second time in the World Athletics Championships. He is the only Asian to vault the height.

Already, Obiena has his eyes on two prizes next year – defeat Duplantis and win gold in the Paris Olympics. The Filipino athletics star already holds two wins over the seemingly invincible Duplantis. Obiena beat Duplantis for the first time in the Wanda Diamond League in Belgium last year, edging the Swedish star for the gold. He repeated the feat in July in the Monaco leg of the Diamond League, where Obiena earned a silver behind Nilsen, while Duplantis failed to make the podium at fourth.

If Obiena’s 2023 season was any indication, then the two major goals he has set out for himself in 2024 appear to be similar to the six-meter mark – a height that the Filipino has already proven he could leap over. – Rappler.com

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