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March 30, 2022

Fighting the Federation: Ernest John Obiena vs. PATAFA

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In May 2021, Filipino pole vaulter, Ernest John Obiena published an article in The Philippine Star ahead of the Tokyo Olympics thanking his ‘village’ for all the support in his career. Like all good children should, he first mentions his parents. Then he gets to the taxpayers for the venues and travel they’ve funded. He then writes extensively about the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA), their financial backing that made it possible for him to train in Italy, and for their unwavering backing during an ACL injury. He specifically mentions Dr. Philip Juico, the president of the organization and writes, ‘he stood by me over the years and threw his support to help me get chances to prove myself.’

Oh, how things have changed!

Obiena should have been competing in Belgrade at the World Championships for The Philippines first-ever medal. His personal best is 5.93m from September 2021, and at the beginning of March he set an indoor national record of 5.91m — the fourth-highest jump in the world this year. Ultimately, it would take 5.90m to win bronze, but Obiena didn’t get a chance to reach the podium, because he did not have the endorsement of his country to compete at all.

In November of 2021 a dispute between Obiena and PATAFA became public. There were accusations that the funding he received to pay his coach, Vitaly Petrov, was misused. The federation has asked that Obiena pay back the €85,000 that was intended for Petrov, however, the legendary coach whose list of pupils includes Sergey Bubka, Yelena Isinbayeva, and Thiago Braz, maintains no such problem exists and that he has always been paid.

Obiena admits that he may have paid Petrov late at one point, so the entire controversy seems to simply be a misunderstanding — a slip up of paperwork and timing. Requests by the athlete for the federation to pay his coach directly were denied, despite that being the obvious and most simple solution here.

Currently, Obiena continues to seek an amicable resolution with the Philippines. It’s clear he is very proud to represent his country, which only had one other athlete compete at the World Championships and Olympics. Since this public spat began, the Philippine Olympic Committee launched an ethics investigation into Dr. Juico’s involvement and as a result declared him a persona non grata, finding he had harassed an athlete with malicious public accusations. However, because the committee does not have jurisdiction to remove him, they had to go one step further and last week the POC suspended PATAFA as the national governing body.

For American readers, this is the equivalent of the USOC stripping USATF of the power to select international teams.

This whole thing is a huge mess with Obiena hiring multinational consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers to audit his paperwork. I assume they have a team poring over every Venmo charge of his from the past four years. And now even the government is involved!

There are four key takeaways from all this:

  1. This is making every other federation look amazing in comparison. Low bar, but our problems suddenly don’t seem that bad!
  2. If you want to pay a coach, pay them directly. In the words of Ernest Obiena, “I am a pole vaulter — not an accountant.”
  3. How in the world did he manage to vault 5.91m a couple weeks ago amidst all this stress and distraction? Let’s hope this gets resolved soon so Obiena can reach his full potential.
  4. This all feels personal, like we are missing some vital piece of information. If you are the president of a federation whose job description is to help athletes represent your nation and perform internationally, and there are only two athletes on your whole country’s roster, why are you playing games with them?You just lost fifty percent of the team and the best shot at the Philippines first ever world championship medal!

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