The bleachers of the Olympic Stadium at Tokyo 2020 are empty only in name. With live streams checking in from all over the world, viewers have been watching in nail-biting anticipation for yet another sporting event to cheer for.
In this case, we’re referring to pole vaulting.
As the clock struck six o’clock this evening, netizens started tuning in. Right after the silver medal victory of boxer Nesthy Petecio, yet another Filipino athlete started to trend: EJ Obiena, the Chinoy pole vaulting star of the Philippines.
For a short recap, EJ Obiena, currently ranked sixth in the world, as of this writing, previously made headlines for being the first Filipino athlete to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Last July 31, Obiena proceeded to wow the nation when he qualified for the final round of the competition by clearing 5.75 meters on his final attempt. Obiena then found himself competing as one of the top 14 in the most prestigious sporting event in history.
This, of course, was a historic run in the making. It had taken a long journey to get there.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Obiena started training in athletics at the tender age of eight but only really took a shine on pole vault in his last year of high school in an attempt to gain a college scholarship. Eventually, he also started to compete at the collegiate level as a student-athlete in the University of Santo Tomas (UST), all the while pursuing an undergraduate degree in electronics engineering.
But Obiena’s true rise in the pole vaulting field came after a chance meeting with the globally renowned GOAT Sergei Bubka, who had visited the Philippines and offered Obiena the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I found out from a text message. I was 17 or 18 at the time, a young pole vaulter without any great results to my name, but that text from my national federation would change the course of my career,” said Obiena. “What did it say? That Sergei Bubka was in town.”
Sergei Bubka’s impressive track record includes an Olympic gold medal, six world titles, and 35 world records, among other achievements. As an aspiring pole vaulting athlete, Obiena could not dare let this chance go. He asked for a chance to meet Bubka, hoping to get an autograph and a picture. In the end, he received a whole lot more.
“Out of the blue, [Bubka] suddenly asked, ‘How high do you jump?’” shared Obiena. “I said 4.95m. He told me that the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) [has] a scholarship program for athletes like me, and if I jump five meters within the year he would personally endorse me to be in it. I was motivated AF.”
Naturally, Obiena found himself inspired. With some grueling hard work, he succeeded and began training among the very best in the world at the World Pole Vault Training Center in Italy. He is now coached by Vitaly Petrov, who has guided some of pole vaulting’s greatest names including Olympic and World champions Thiago Braz de Silva, Giuseppe Gibilisco, Yelena Isinbayeva, and Bubka himself.
Since then, Obiena has quite literally propelled himself to great heights. Not only did he add gold medal victories to his name in the 2019 Universiade and the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, but he also walked into Tokyo 2020 as the highest-ranked pole vaulting athlete from Asia.
Falling short of the bar but not in our hearts
Although Obiena proudly leapt high into the sky as the only Southeast Asian athlete for Tokyo 2020, he found himself struggling to clear heights that he had previously gone over with ease in competitions just a month ago.
For his debut Olympic performance, Obiena found himself bowing out during the third round of the competition, after crashing onto the mat on his third official attempt to clear 5.80 meters in apparent frustration. This, of course, is perfectly understandable — his personal best is a national record held at 5.87 meters.
But despite his fall from medal contention, online fans were quick to praise his mature and smart demeanor. The reason why Obiena was allowed to make his third jump, after all, was because he was able to quickly and efficiently call a challenge out to the technical panel.
During his final attempt to clear 5.80 meters, Obiena made two running passes without any attempts to jump, ultimately resulting in a foul. This should have immediately taken Obiena out of the competition.
Obiena, however, smartly contested: “The bar was moving while the clock was running. How can I jump?”
EJ OBIENA EXPLAINING! pic.twitter.com/cDElpZNOox
— Andrea 👽📻 (@dreicaceres) August 3, 2021
It was only after a lengthy talk with sports officials that Obiena was then able to make his final jumping pass. As with his previous two attempts, he jumped over the bar with great height but knocked it down during his descent. Despite not being able to win a medal for the country, however, many have felt that Obiena deserved praise not only for his unprecedented feats as a competing Filipino athlete but also for his cool head, eloquence, and technical sportsmanship.
That's why it is very important for any athlete to know the rules and regulations, not just playing the game/sport itself. Kudos and still proud of him. 💪🇵🇭👏
— Irah Shane Olano (@irahshaneoln) August 3, 2021
This was such a #Tumindig moment. From what I gathered, he was protesting about the timer here. Maraming salamat EJ Obiena for showing us na hindi mali ang manindigan, may mali kaya naninindigan. Nakakaproud ang mga atletang Pilipino! #Tokyo2020 #PHI pic.twitter.com/vAnpuyPak4
— Jon Callueng (@thisisJonMari) August 3, 2021
He knows the rules! Salute for arguing your case well. 👏👏🇵🇭🇵🇭 https://t.co/LuaEkkG17r
— Ciro (@cirob41) August 3, 2021
In the end, Obiena finished a historic run as the first Filipino pole vaulter to compete in the Olympics by placing a respectable 11th in the finals. Tokyo 2020 was a competition dominated by Sweden’s Armando Duplantis for gold, and the USA’s Christopher Nilsen for silver, and Brazil’s Thiago Braz for bronze.
However, for all intents and purposes, EJ Obiena’s meteoric rise has only just begun. At the age of 25, there is no doubt that Obiena still has the years and energy to push forward. The country now cheers Obiena on to raise the bar.
After all, Paris 2024 is only three years away.