Witch-hunt on Obiena decried

Joaquin Henson - The Philippine Star
Witch-hunt on Obiena decried
Philippines' Ernest John Obiena competes in the men's pole vault final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on August 3, 2021.

MANILA, Philippines — First, PATAFA demanded World No. 6 pole vaulter EJ Obiena to return 85,000 Euros which it claimed was sent to the athlete’s account for payment to Ukrainian coach Vitaliy Petrov. When Petrov issued a statement that he had been paid in full, PATAFA looked for another charge to push Obiena into a corner and came out with falsifying liquidation records although the numbers are more than reconciled in the final tally because of an overpayment.

Sports patron and American businessman Jim Lafferty yesterday decried the “witch-hunt” and PATAFA’s attempts to discredit Obiena. Lafferty has supported PATAFA and its athletes, in particular Obiena and Marestella Torres, for over 10 years and put out at least P10 million of his own money to back up the NSA. Lafferty, a former P&G and Coca-Cola top executive, resides in Dubai where he is CEO of a company with 4,000 employees. He is married to a Filipina and was once based in Manila as P&G CEO.

“The federation exists for athletes and should serve athletes, nobody else,” he said. “I remember once, in a plane, I took my economy seat and watched Fiipino athletes get squished in economy while sports officials sipped wine, ate good food and lived it up in business or first class at a ratio of five officials to one athlete. I wonder if the federation money goes to the athletes or the officials.”

Lafferty said Obiena is a one-in-a-million athlete. “He’s the fastest vaulter in the world today and the best, pound for pound,” said Lafferty. “What I love about this kid is he’s humble, hard-working and he comes from Tondo. He’s a homegrown Filipino athlete who’s now in the world’s top 10. No Filipino has ever done that. No Asian has ever made it to the Olympic pole vault final. In the SEA Games in Singapore once, a Fil-Am came up to me and asked about the Philippines, whether there was a King and Queen. Isn’t that incredible? I’m not putting down Fil-Am athletes but some of them don’t even know about the Philippines. When EJ jumped 5.81, it opened the doors for countries to invite him to switch passports. One major country offered a financial package, including a pension for life, easily triple than what he gets now. EJ turned it down because of loyalty to his country. Over the last two weeks, several countries have gone to Italy to see EJ and make an offer. Unfortunately, PATAFA is now the laughing stock in the athletics world. They’re destroying a national treasure and it’s as if we’re loaded with Olympic-caliber athletes.”

Lafferty produced a document detailing Obiena’s remittances to Petrov in the amount of 87,817 Euros, an overpayment as he was supposed to receive only 85,000 Euros from January 2019 to November 2021. Lafferty dismissed the intrigue that his Dubai and German bank accounts were used to transmit the payments. “90 percent of what EJ gets from PATAFA to pay Petrov is in Philippine pesos so I offer to convert the currency to Euros to pay Petrov, no big deal,” he said. “It’s the least I can do for EJ. I don’t make a centavo out of this. Remember, he’s an athlete, not a bookkeeper. Right now, EJ feels very alone. Who’s got his back? PATAFA hasn’t given him money since August and his money will run out in two weeks. Where does he go from then? There’s a gag order from PSC and EJ respects it. So does the POC. But what about PATAFA? We want to deescalate this issue. If we didn’t want to, we would’ve gone to court and sue for slander and defamation of character and we would win hands down with a locked-in case.”

Lafferty said this rift could be resolved overnight. “First, PATAFA should retract its accusations of embezzlement and clear EJ’s name,” he said. “Second, reform procedures of liquidation and not designate athletes to be paymasters or to handle payroll and administrative matters. Third, mend fences and reconcile. EJ and PATAFA should work together for the country, not against each other. Let’s find peace in the spirit of Christmas.”

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