Ernest John “EJ” Obiena was on easy street on home grounds. In the three weeks that he was in the Philippines for much-needed R&R, the world’s No. 3 pole vaulter was peppered with profit-making deals that made him ambassador of top consumer brands. Of course, there were also the mandatory courtesy calls to various sports officials and patrons that would ensure a financial lifeline while he trains and competes abroad in preparation for the Paris Summer Olympics in August 2024.
His calendar was apparently so full that his mentor, James Michael Lafferty, just could not find a free slot for a brief interview with this writer. Per Lafferty, his ward was literally swamped 16 hours straight every day.
Indeed, Obiena is the man of the hour—a complete reversal of fortune from when, early this year, he was dropped from the national athletics team roster. His exclusion followed a controversial rift with his mother federation, the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (Patafa), which was triggered by claims of unliquidated expenses and failure to pay his Ukrainian coach, Vitaly Petrov.
It started in November 2021. Patafa, then headed by its president Philip Ella Juico, ordered the Italy-based Obiena to return 85,000 euros (around P4.9 million), alleging that the Olympian had falsified liquidation documents for Petrov’s salary. Obiena denied the allegation and, with his funding cut since August 2021, intimated that he was thinking of just retiring from the sport.
As though Obiena’s exclusion from the national pool were not enough, the investigative body formed by Patafa recommended in January the filing of a criminal complaint against the 26-year-old, for supposedly unliquidated 6,000 euros (P360,000). Even the legendary Petrov, 84, was not spared, as the body also recommended that a complaint be filed against him at the World Athletics, for supposed violation of the Integrity Code of Conduct. Meanwhile, Obiena’s backer and adviser, Lafferty, was to be declared persona non grata.
Winning golds, resetting records
But his winning gold medals and resetting current pole vault records quickly swayed the tide in Obiena’s favor. Sports and government officials soon interceded, convincing Patafa to defer its decision. It also helped that Juico resigned his post in June, cutting short a stint that would have ended in November 2024 (or after the 2024 Paris Olympics).
And who would not have sided with Obiena? Despite his exclusion from the national pool, he won his first gold medal of the year at the 2022 Orlen Cup held in Lodz, Poland, on Feb. 12. Eleven days later, on Feb. 23, he snatched his second gold at the Orlen Copernicus Cup in Torun, Poland.
While he took the silver medal at the Perch Elite Tour in Rouen, France, on March 7, his 5.91-meter mark reset the Philippine record (5.86 meters) that he himself set in the 2021 Orlen Cup in Poland.
Obiena notched his biggest achievement so far on July 25 in the United States, taking the bronze medal at the biennial World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. This is a historic feat as he became the first Filipino to win a medal on the grandest stage in global track and field. His 5.94-meter mark also broke the Asian record (5.93 meters) that he set in Austria last year, when he erased the 5.92-meter record that Kazakhstan’s Igor Potapovich held for 23 years.
On a gold-medal roll
Perhaps buoyed by news of his reinstatement in the national team on Aug. 13, Obiena bagged his third gold medal at the 26th Internationales Stabhochsprung-Meeting in Jockgrim, Germany, on Aug. 24.
Five days later, on Aug. 29, he snatched his fourth gold at the True Athletes Classic 2022 in Leverkusen, Germany. His 5.81-meter mark allowed him to qualify for Hungary’s 2023 World Athletics Championships.
On Sept. 1, Obiena won his fifth gold at the St. Wendel City Jump in Germany, with his 5.86-meter mark resetting the event’s previous record of 5.71 meters.
Then, on Sept. 3, he not only clinched his first-ever victory at the Wanda Diamond League in Brussels, Belgium, by clearing 5.91 meters, he also beat the world’s No. 1 and world record holder Armand Duplantis, who failed to reach the same mark set by Obiena.
It was a rare setback for the 22-year-old US-born Swede who has won 17 competitions, 14 of which he achieved with vaults over the 6-meter mark. Nevertheless, Duplantis still holds bragging rights for the world record mark of 6.21 meters that he set on July 24.
Obiena bagged his seventh gold of the year on Sept. 12 at the 19th Tour Stop of the Golden Fly Series in Schaan, Liechtenstein. Then he was homeward bound, arriving in the Philippines on Sept. 15.
From No. 30 to No. 3
Since Obiena’s decision in 2016 to move to the Italian town of Formia, where he trains at the IAAF World Pole Vault Centre, he has gone from being No. 30 in the world to No. 10 (September 2019), and then from No. 6 (July 11, 2022) to his current No. 3 ranking.
But make no mistake about it. Despite the gold medal he is aiming for at the Paris Olympics, he has set his sights on one other target: to break Duplantis’ 6.21-meter record. To do it, he needs that sterling combination of luck and ability.
Obiena already has the jumping genes from his father, Emerson, who was a pole vaulter as well as previous national record holder and Southeast Asian Games silver and bronze medalist. His mother, Jeanette, on the other hand, was a hurdler.
Petrov has consistently exposed Obiena to high-level pole vault circuits where he can hone his skills and techniques. The Ukrainian coach has already produced world champions and Olympic gold winners, including Sergey Bubka, a two-time world champion and 1988 Olympic gold medalist, as well as Obiena’s contemporary, Thiago Braz of Brazil, who is the Rio 2016 Olympic gold medalist and holder of the Olympic record of 6.03 meters.
It’s now up to Obiena to make sure that the winds of fortune are always at his back.