EJ Obiena

Phenomenal is the communal intoxication in the afterglow of Ernest John Obiena’s solid gold, the first for the country in the ongoing 19th Asiad. He lived up to everyone’s expectations and didn’t disappoint.

And in doing what he set out to do, he earned the distinct honor of being Asia’s GOAT (greatest of all time) in the solitary sport of men’s pole vault. A field event no Filipino athlete had yet mastered until EJ Obiena came along.

“It’s a privilege to be in this position where the whole country was literally expecting a gold. Thank God I didn’t crack,” Obiena said right after his heralded feat.

There are no slam dunks in the pole vault, no breakaways, and little violence. There are no blocked shots, no electrifying runs, no alley-oop passes — just one forever moment lasting no more than mere seconds.

Yet that brief moment demands that an athlete coordinate speed, power, strength, agility and gymnastic ability.

So, as the world’s number 2 in men’s pole vault eased himself one Saturday afternoon in China into the high-speed takeoff down the 40-meter runway straight to the pit, fiberglass pole held firmly up high, evident pride and steely nerve was unmistakable in his lanky bearing.

After sprightly sprinting towards the ominous 4.5-meter-long horizontal bar, set up 5.90 meters high on two uprights, he jammed the 14-foot pole against the stop board, hoping the curving pole would absorb as much kinetic energy as possible to transfer that energy back into his soaring vault in the air.

Twenty-seven-year-old Obiena cleared the 5.90-meter bar, a new Asian record.

He didn’t even have to clear the 5.90. Earlier, he comfortably cleared the 5.75-m mark — shattering the old mark of 5.70 meters set by Japan’s Yamamoto Seito in the 2018 Jakarta Asiad — for the gold.

“It was like icing on the cake to win this,” declared Obiena after his jump, a huge Philippine flag draped over his shoulders. “Our country needed it. I wanted it. It was my job to bring it.”

Yet, as EJ Obiena basked in Asiad podium glory, decisively ending the decades-long drought for a Philippine gold medal in Asiad athletics, his feat could have been a curtailed achievement.

Early last year, he underwent knee surgery for a meniscal cleanup, a medical procedure that clouded his burgeoning career as a world-class athlete.

He also had to endure morale-depleting attempts by previous officials of his own athletic association — the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association — to raise false accusations of fund misuse.

It wasn’t the first time a Filipino athlete was targeted by sordid political cliques lording it over athletic associations partially funded from public coffers.

Amid that painful episode, Obiena confessed he, too, was tempted to follow other national athletes who needed “to move away from the country to continue in the sport that they love.”

But he stayed, firmly believing “the Philippines is worth fighting for.”

His gritty determination to hold his ground — perhaps formed in the character ethos of his Tondo childhood — against a sleazy world plagued by crude, corrupt appetites apparently spurred him to new heights in world championship meets and into the blaze of glory at Hangzhou Stadium.

Hangzhou capped Obiena’s superb season. He won the gold at the Southeast Asian Games in May and the Asian Athletics Championships in July. Last August, he placed second to world record holder Mondo Duplantis at the World Athletics Championships, clearing six meters.

EJ Obiena gets to have a much-needed rest after Hangzhou. But soon enough, he’ll return to his lonely, painful grind. He is the first Filipino athlete to earn an outright berth in next year’s Paris Olympics. He is expected to be at his peak once the Paris Olympiad rolls around.

But whatever happens, superb sportsman, EJ Obiena already has an outright claim to being a Filipino original.

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