Sports

What Is Going On With EJ Obiena and PATAFA? The Accusations of Embezzlement, Explained 

Obiena is fighting to clear his name.
IMAGE JEROME ASCAÑO
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Currently ranked the sixth best men’s pole vaulter in the world, EJ Obiena is now dealing with more than just his fight for championships. The 26-year-old athlete is now embroiled in an investigation regarding his so-called “falsified liquidations” pertaining to payments made to his coach, Vitaly Petrov.

The ongoing row between the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) and Obiena continues as the latter tries to clear his name. 

Here’s what went down

On November 21, two letters from PATAFA addressed to Obiena were reportedly leaked to select media outlets. In the letters, Obiena was told to return €85,000 (P4.8 million) to PATAFA and that funding for his training in Formia, Italy would be suspended until the investigation into the financial issue was resolved. 

“Based on the written statements of Mr. Sergey Bubka and Mr. Vitaly Petrov, including the documents you have submitted to the Patafa, it appears that you falsified the liquidations submitted to the Patafa and failed to pay the coaching fees of Mr. Vitaly Petrov in the total amount of Eighty-Five Thousand Euros (€85,000),” said the first letter, as per Inquirer. 

According to Obiena’s interview with Karen Davila on ANC Headstart, Obiena received the letters on November 15 and addressed the issue immediately, sending proof of payments and screenshots of his messages with Vitaly to PATAFA. 

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Following the leak, Obiena released a press statement defending himself. You can read the full statement below, but here’s the gist: 

In an impassioned letter, Obiena wrote, “My own federation comes after me with pure aggression, no benefit of the doubt, and with intent to destroy my reputation.” The athlete refuted the existence of the supposed letter from Bubka and Petrov regarding unpaid payments: “This is fraud, pure and simple.” He has also engaged an auditor from Price-Waterhouse-Coopers to assist him in auditing the payments to further prove his innocence. 

Obiena admitted that he submitted his liquidation paperwork late or in a “sloppy” fashion and that he initially asked PATAFA to pay his team directly instead of using him as a middle man. He then requested for a public apology from PATAFA, adding that he was mulling retirement and other career options should the issue remain unresolved. 

“I am unable to focus and to train property with this hanging over my head. If you want a textbook example of how to destroy an athlete you are seeing it right here,” said Obiena. 

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In a report by Spin.ph, PATAFA claimed that it only acted in reaction to the supposed letter signed by Petrov and World Athletics senior vice-president Sergey Bubka. However, Obiena said that this letter does not exist. Petrov appeared in Obiena’s press conference, where he defended his trainee and released the statement below. 

It reads, “This situation is destroying this young man and ruining his chances to success now and in the future. I worked with many countries and sport federation. I must say I do not understand what this federation is doing and what good comes out of destroying a fine young man. It is opposite and sets the Philippine track and field program back and this is a shame.” 

Obiena followed up with another statement on November 23, in which he criticized PATAFA’s change in tune. According to the athlete, the federation first implied that he was guilty of theft and embezzlement, but now the issue is that he did not pay on time. Obiena admits he was not thorough in dealing with paperwork, but shot back saying, “Do you want medals or do you want accountant-athletes?” He observed that no other athlete in his Olympic Training Center deals with so much backend administration. 

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In the closing sentences, EJ even joked that PATAFA would produce affidavits from Poncio Pilato after criticizing the federation for involving Bubka, who plays no role in his team, in the situation. However, the letter took on a sadder tone as Obiena revealed how the fiasco has affected him internally.

“It is clear I am not wanted by my federation in any shape or form. I am attacked without any due process and now the narrative and accusations have somehow changed. I am cut from funding and figuring it out somehow here in Italy. I am destroyed mentally and physically.”

On November 24, PATAFA president Philip Juico laid down the federation’s side of the issue on ANC. In the interview, Juico pointed out that the main issues are: the first affidavit complaint from Bubka and Petrov, reports of late payments, and reports of late liquidations. In response to Obiena’s accountant-athlete statement, Juico said that “all athletes do liquidations” in order to be accountable for their expenses. As for his payments to his coaches, Juico claims that the money came from different bank accounts in the Middle East and from Germany, as well as from Obiena’s mother.

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On the topic of reconciliation, Juico said, “We don’t know. There’s an investigation ongoing.” 

The issue, which has already gone viral on social media, has reached the Senate as some senators have chimed in on the issue, siding with Obiena. In the Senate’s plenary budget deliberations for the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), senator Pia Cayetano called on PSC chairman Butch Ramirez to “rectify the grave injustice that they have done upon EJ.” If not, the senator said that she would move to reallocate PATAFA’s budget and give it directly to the athletes. 

“The PSC also shares the sentiments of our distinguished colleagues here in the Senate and that PSC even further relay that we should continue to protect and support our athletes and not to demoralize them and with that we are supporting the PSC in its call to stop the harassment against EJ Obiena,” said senator Joel Villanueva.

Will Obiena Retire? 

In his two public statements, Obiena said that he was willing to retire should the issue remain unresolved. “Just say the word,” wrote EJ. 

In his ANCX Headstart interview, Obiena reiterated his lack of motivation: “It’s futile for me to continue if I cannot perform to my full ability.” 

Despite this, Obiena said that the Paris 2024 Olympics is still his goal, but if the issue drags on, then he “doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time.” 

History Repeats Itself

This is not the first time a sporting organization has been at odds with its athletes. Sports fans will remember Wesley So as one of the greatest athletes the Philippines ever lost. Disillusioned by the lack of support, recognition, and appreciation from his own country, the future chess grandmaster eventually migrated to the United States, which he now represents in all of his matches. 

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The issue between Obiena and PATAFA is reminiscent of another Olympian’s harrowing journey. Almost three years ago, an Olympic silver medalist was embroiled in a political mess when she was wrongly implicated in a supposed “ouster” matrix against the president. Hidilyn Diaz went on to become the country’s first-ever gold medalist and has said that the red-tagging incident only made her stronger.

“The entire incident has damaged my reputation, and is now forever part of my history,” said Obiena on his own personal crisis. “This is not enclosed in sports.” 

As the athlete, who is the Philippines’ best pole vaulter ever, deals with the ongoing PATAFA controversy, we can only hope that history does indeed repeat itself and push another Olympian to defy the odds once more.

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Anri Ichimura
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