The ongoing row between pole vault Olympian EJ Obiena and the leadership of the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) continues, with athletes, former athletes, sports staff, and even politicians now taking sides in the controversy.
A PATAFA committee probing the incident has recommended that Obiena be dropped from the national team due to alleged misappropriation of funds meant to pay his Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov. PATAFA said it will also file a criminal estafa case against Obiena.
Obiena for his part has denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to face the charges to clear his name.
Boxing star and fellow Tokyo Olympian Eumir Marcial stands by Obiena's side, slamming the federation's recent move.
The decision of PATAFA to remove EJ from the national pool, I feel, was some sort of an invalidation of the efforts and sacrifices that EJ has made to bring honor to our country, something that every athlete can strongly relate to," Marcial wrote in a Facebook post.
"This unfortunate situation has affected his focus in his training costing him so much of his time, energy, and resources instead of pouring all his attention to his preparations for his upcoming season and tournaments."
In his statement, the boxer recalled his own struggles with the Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines and how Obiena sided with him amid this.
"Just to let you know po that I'm with you po. Sadly my hands are tied at the moment and choosing my battles. I'm having issues here as well and I feel that the association that I'm representing is actually against me," Obiena told Marcial in a message.
The Olympian boxer encouraged the young pole vaulter, saying "many of our countrymen are standing beside you in this rather wretched fight."
Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Bambol Tolentino also vowed to support the embattled Obiena after PATAFA's expulsion which he called a "vengeful act."
"The action of Mr. Juico in removing Obiena from the national pool is an expected result of his exposé. A vengeful act that shuts down the chances of the Philippines from its Olympic dream," he said.
"We will fight for EJ. We in the POC will help him in his future campaigns," Tolentino added.
A number of politicians have also spoken up to support Obiena.
"Ma-reresolba ito sa tamang pag-uusap. Ako ay handang tumulong upang magkaliwanagan. Obiena is a national treasure. Nararapat sa kanya ay suporta upang patuloy na makapagbigay ng karangalan sa lahing Pilipino," Senator Manny Pacquiao, who is running for president, said in a tweet.
Kudos to the PSC for mediating to resolve the EJ Obiena-PATAFA rift. Ma reresolba ito sa tamang pag-uusap. Ako ay handang tumulong upang magkaliwanagan. Obiena is a national treasure. Nararapat sa kanya ay suporta upang patuloy na makapagbigay ng karangalan sa lahing Pilipino.— Manny Pacquiao (@MannyPacquiao) January 5, 2022
Senate President Vicente Tito Sotto III also asked PATAFA to “leave EJ alone.”
“Our athletes represent the country on a different level. They should be getting our support and not being attacked by sports associations,” Sotto said in a statement.
Kabataan party-list Rep. Sarah Elago also called on the public to support Obiena.
“The system must provide them with enabling environments that maintain and improve their focus and concentration in sports. Our Filipino athletes deserve better,” said Elago.
Let us support and stand with EJ Obiena! Empower athletes—our nation's pride, inspiration to the youth and children. The system must provide them with enabling environments that maintain and improve their focus and concentration in sports. Our Filipino athletes deserve better!— Sarah Elago (@sarahelago) January 5, 2022
Letters of support
On the other hand, 26 national track and field athletes past and present, as well as 11 coaches, wrote open letters to support PATAFA amid the controversy.
"Ang totoo ay lahat kaming mga atleta ay binibigyan ng financial support mula sa buwis ng taumbayan. Kapalit nito ay ang responsibilidad na ginamit naming ito ng tama sa pamamagitan ng liquidation. Ang maayos at mabilis na pag-liquidate ay isang simpleng paraan para maipakita namin ang pasasaslamat sa taumbayan," it read.
The athletes added that they never used the process of liquidating expenses as an excuse that stopped them from excelling as athletes.
"Sinusuportahan namin ang imbestigasyon kung paano ginamit ang pera dahil responsibilidad nating alagaan ang buwis ng bawat Pilipino," they added.
During a PATAFA press conference held on Jan. 4, SEA Games bronze medalist Mico del Prado confirmed the manifesto signed by the national athletes.
"Hindi [ang pag-li-liquidate] hadlang sa pagiging atleta namin," he said.
Two-time men's 400-meter Asian champion Isidro del Prado, three-time Olympian Hector Begeo, and long jump queen Elma Muros-Posadas also expressed their support for PATAFA in a separate letter.
"It is with sadness that super stardom as an athlete has been made 'license' for disrespect for authority, for dishonest dealing with money matters when liquidation has been part of our athlete's lives," they wrote.
"On our part, stardom is no excuse, and has never been an excuse, to downplay the truth for all to know."
Former POC president Cristina Ramos, in an interview with ANC, acknowledged Obiena’s brilliance as an athlete, but noted that receiving public funds as a national athlete entails a responsibility.
"Understandably the life of an athlete is very difficult, the day gets busy, but again people have to understand that if you are receiving public money, you have to be accountable for every centavo that is paid to you, and you can't say that you are too busy and can't do the paperwork," said Ramos.
"Athletes and anyone who receives public money should be accountable and held responsible for every centavo they receive."
As the issue of liquidation for national athletes has long been a contentious point, Ramos said the PSC should be more forceful in working out ways to improve the process for both the athlete and the auditor.