GREATNESS BECKONS — Olympic medal to cement Obiena legacy

HANGZHOU, China — Ernest John Obiena’s victory in the men’s pole vault event didn’t only give the Philippines its first gold medal in the 19th Asian Games.

It also revived the debate on whether he already deserves a lofty spot in the pedestal of Philippine athletics.

With the crowd inside the 80,000-seater Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium at the edge of its seat, the 27-year-old Obiena put on a show as he carved a record-breaking 5.90-meter masterpiece on Saturday night.

He first smashed 5.75 meters but successfully cleared the Asian Games record of 5.90 meters, much to the delight of the Chinese spectators, who clapped, screamed and cheered relentlessly every time he touched the pole.

As a birthday gift to his Ukrainian mentor Vitaly Petrov, Obiena tried to register a personal-best and Asian record of 6.02 meters but failed on three occasions.

Still, Obiena displayed tremendous showmanship and sportsmanship when he backflipped after making a botched attempt. Then, he pointed to the sky, addressed the small Filipino crowd, including Philippine Olympic Committee president Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino, chief of mission Richard Gomez and ranking Philippine Sports Commission officials, and ran towards Petrov to give him a warm embrace.

With the feat, Obiena awarded the Philippines its first Asian Games gold medal in athletics in 37 years since the late Lydia de Vega-Mercado conquered the 100-meter title in the Seoul edition in 1986.

It was also the first medal of any color by a Filipino track and field athlete since Elma Muros-Posadas captured the bronze medal in the women’s long jump event in Hiroshima in 1994.

Prior to that, Obiena had been crowned as the world No. 2 vaulter, Asian Athletics Championships king and the first Filipino to qualify in the Paris Olympics next year with a ton of medals from his long campaign in Europe sitting in his trophy collection.

But for Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association secretary general Edward Kho, it’s still too early for Obiena to be crowned as the best Filipino track and field athlete ever.

“I think the GOAT (greatest of all time) distinction deserves a longer conversation. But EJ indeed is a great athlete who has achieved athletics honors no one has ever attained,” Kho said a day after Obiena’s history-making performance.

Kho added that an Olympic medal in the French capital next year will lay the raging debate to rest and completely cement Obiena’s golden legacy.

After all, two revered athletes in Simeon Torribio and Miguel White own that legendary status after winning bronze medals in the men’s high jump and men’s 400-meter hurdles in 1932 in Los Angeles and 1936 in Berlin, respectively.

“I believe an Olympic medal would greatly swing this argument to his favor,” Kho said.

Patafa president Terry Capistrano said he could just imagine the pressure Obiena had due to the massive expectations on his shoulders.

He said Obiena competed at a time when the Philippines desperately needed an Asian Games gold medal so his achievement will definitely fire up other elite athletes like Hidilyn Diaz and Elreen Ando of weightlifting and Carlo Paalam and Eumir Marcial of boxing to do well in the coming days.

“I’m very happy that he pulled through. I can imagine the pressure on EJ because of all the expectations, but he pulled through. It seems like a routine for him and it’s a good routine,” Capistrano said.

“And this is not just about athletics, it’s for our campaign in general. I hope we win more medals in other sports. I hope we can still increase our gold, silver and bronze medals.”

But competing in the Olympics is the last thing on Obiena’s mind — at least for now.

“Oh, I’m resting,” Obiena said when asked about his plans for the Summer Games.

“I’m not yet thinking about it.”


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