EJ Obiena has made multiple headlines earlier this year for his extraordinary feats, which include qualifying as the Philippines’ sole Olympic pole vault finalist and breaking a 23-year-old Asian record. This momentum of success, however, had abruptly come to a halt when Obiena was forced to end his season due to a lack of funds.
Less than two months after this decision, Obiena now finds himself facing another financial dilemma — an accusation by Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) claiming the misuse of government funds meant for coach Vitaly Petrov, who is globally renowned for training World and Olympic champions. Acting on a statement of non-payment that was allegedly signed by said coach, the national athletics federation issued Obiena a letter ordering the return of coaching fees amounting to 85,000 euros (equivalent to around PHP 4.8 million).
The accusation, however, was immediately denied by Obiena in social media, claiming that the reports were false and “represent nothing more than character assassination.”
“I have prided myself in embracing the values of discipline, competitiveness, honour, transparency and respect. This doesn’t change even in times of crisis,” Obiena wrote.
Coach Petrov confirms payment
PATAFA began a probe against Obiena on the basis of a report backed by an affidavit signed by Sergey Bubka, the president of the National Olympic Committee of Ukraine who was also once crowned an Olympic and six-time world champion. According to PATAFA, Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov himself claimed that he did not receive his salary.
However, in a virtual press conference held last November 21 (Sunday), Obiena revealed a letter penned by Petrov stating otherwise.
On the record, Petrov wrote: “I must say I do not understand what this federation [PATAFA] is doing and what comes out of this. I have been fully paid by EJ, both directly and indirectly. I have no problem with EJ Obiena.”
Obiena started working with Petrov, globally renowned to be the sport’s greatest coach, back in 2018. Since then, Obiena has climbed ranks to become the current sixth-best pole vaulter in the world and has surpassed a continental record that has stood for more than 23 years. However, although these place him in good position for a future bet in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, Obiena has expressed frustrations about the situation that PATAFA is now placing him in, even going so far as to reveal thoughts of retirement.
“I don’t want to waste anybody’s time if I cannot jump, and I’m not performing to the point that I cannot represent the Philippines fairly,” said Obiena, whose training funds have been cut due to the incident.
“It’s futile for me to continue with the current situation. I’m a 26-year-old in life. I can’t waste somebody’s time. I’m happy to walk away. I’m proud of where I am, I’m proud of what I brought to the country, I’m proud of what I have achieved.”
In response to the incident, Obiena is filing a complaint of defamation and slander to the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), International Olympic Committee (IOC), and World Athletics. He has also demanded that PATAFA withdraw their probe against him and issue an official public apology. Otherwise, he considers immediately retiring from the sport and continuing his undergraduate studies at the University of Santo Tomas.
PATAFA: A shift in the narrative
Since Obiena’s reply to the embezzlement accusations, PATAFA has begun asking for evidence that the athlete had paid his coach on time. In alleged contrast to the liquidation documents submitted by Obiena during the last three years, PATAFA president Philip Ella Juico states that Coach Petrov’s salaries were only paid in full with transactions dating November 4, 5, and 9, 2021 through banks abroad, with two from Dubai and one from Germany.
Posting his official statement online, Obiena responded, “I am personally shocked at the recent statement and shifting allegations of PATAFA. From their written letters of accusing me of embezzlement; to suddenly changing it to timing of payments?”
“I have already admitted I am a pole vaulter — not an accountant. I have admitted I struggle with the huge amount of paperwork I am required to do to be a paymaster to my team. I am alone in Italy, I train nine hours daily, and I have no help. No other athlete here in the Olympic Training Center carries my burden of administration. I have repeatedly asked PATAFA to pay my coaches directly and to stop requiring me to disperse all funds. First the extra work I need to do, other than competing for the country, and not to mention the other fees I need to shoulder for these transfers. Somehow, it was refused. Have I ever paid Vitaliy Petrov late? YES, I HAVE. I just sometimes cannot manage the workload and the training and get everything done to PATAFA’s satisfaction.”
“[PATAFA] could help me by simply paying people directly — but they refuse this very simple solution for some reason; and now they accuse me of wrongdoing when I never wanted the job of paymaster to begin with! I do a job I am not supposed to be doing and then I am out on public trial for doing that very job? The real question is why doesn’t PATAFA do their job and pay the coaches directly, allowing me to focus on training rather than accounting?”
“I am not an accountant. This is not a crime,” maintained Obiena.
Read Obiena’s full statement here:
The Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) has officially volunteered to mediate the two parties privately, calling for the matter to be handled with confidentiality and a social media ceasefire. According to Senator Pia Cayetano, if the issue continues to remain unresolved, a move to strip PATAFA of its funds next year may be in plans.
But regardless of how the situation plays out, Obiena has made it clear that his first priority is to clear his name. “I am human like anyone else. These situations can destroy people and their motivation. Who would not be severely impacted by this situation? I will complete the PWC Audit, and I will finalize my legal recourse avenues. Just say the word, and I will formally retire from Philippines Athletics and being any part of PATAFA. Clearly, they or he don’t want me in the program based on their actions now and before. There can be no other objective to all these attacks. Let’s just say it and we all move on.”