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The rift between Filipino Olympic vaulter Ernest John “EJ” Obiena and the Philippine Athletic Track and Field Association (Patafa) has become a public spectacle. It has turned ugly. And describing the situation as “ugly” is an understatement.
Patafa’s investigation committee has recommended the expulsion of Obiena from the national pool of track and field athletes “effective immediately,” for allegedly producing sham liquidation papers and misappropriating P3.6 million released to him by Patafa and the Philippine Sports Commission for the salary of his Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov.
Other people were not spared by Patafa: Petrov is set to face a complaint by Patafa before the World Athletics (the governing body for track and field athletes) for alleged “violation of the Integrity Code of Conduct; the athlete’s mother was accused of misappropriating over P624,116.76; and Obiena’s adviser James Lafferty is set to be declared persona non grata by Patafa.
Patafa’s move came after the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) declared Patafa president Philip Ella Juico persona non grata. The POC made its declaration, heeding its ethics committee recommendation to declare Juico as an unacceptable person for allegedly harassing Obiena.
The POC, however, did not remove, suspend or reprimand Juico. The organization, through its president Rep. Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino, said if a national sports association president is “not in one with the aim and purpose of the POC to protect and taking care of the welfare of the athlete, then he or she does not deserve the recognition of POC.”
The Patafa-Obiena rift reportedly stemmed from Obiena’s late disbursement of salaries to Petrov while they trained in Formia, Italy, in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. Obiena hit back at Patafa, saying he had already paid Petrov in full after three payments. Not paying his European coach on time is not a crime, the star athlete said. Petrov supported Obiena, issuing an official statement that he had already received the entire amount due him.
Patafa is set to file estafa charges against Obiena, which the athlete welcomes because he can clear his name through the legal process, and not through the court of public opinion.
This was not the first time that the Juico-led Patafa tangled with an athlete. In 2017, Patafa decided to cut Cebuana Mary Joy Tabal, the Philippines’ first Olympic marathoner, from competing in the 29th Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The organization had taken issue with the marathoner not wanting to train in Manila.
Tabal was able to compete after she was reinstated after Patafa granted her request. She eventually won the first gold for the Philippines in the biennial meet.
As for Obiena, he did not win any medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, Obiena somewhat brought pride to the Philippines as he was the only Asian to reach the final round in pole vaulting, finishing at the 11th spot. Obiena currently holds the No. 6 world rank.
The Summer Olympics, which was held in 2021 after a delay caused by a surge of Covid-19 cases in Japan in 2020, was a medal harvest for Team Philippines with weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz leading the pack by winning the country’s first-ever gold since its first appearance in the Olympics in 1924.
The Patafa-Obiena rift is bad PR for Philippine sports, and it could send waves of pessimism to national athletes.