The role of pole-vault great Sergey Bubka in the Obiena-PATAFA controversy

Manolo Pedralvez

Posted at Jan 28 2022 06:57 AM

What are the contents of “apostilled” affidavit of World Athletics senior vice president Sergey Bubka that seems to have given pole-vaulter Ernest John Obiena serious cause for concern?

Obiena singled out the document last Monday after announcing on his official Facebook page that he was declining the mediation process initiated by Philippine Sports Commission William “Butch” Ramirez in settling his issues with the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association, the sport’s national governing body. 

The Italy-based pole-vaulter cited the “bad faith” of PATAFA and its president, Philip Ella Juico, in turning down the peacemaking efforts of the PSC, which issued its own statement Tuesday that the mediation is “temporarily on hold” in the hope that Obiena would reconsider its offer.

In his latest statement, Obiena did not mince words in alleging that it was Juico “who prepared the affidavit of Sergey Bubka, instructed him to get it apostilled, paid all associated costs and cajoled him to sign” the sworn statement that was certified by the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice on October 28, 2021.

“Using this (affidavit), they (PATAFA) have been manipulating the people into believing that I have not been paying my coach (Vitaly Petrov),” he added.

Juico denied that he could influence Bubka, who is also president of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee and former world and Olympic champion, thanks to the training he had under Petrov, a fellow Ukrainian and former coach.

“Bubka is a World Athletics senior vice president and a respected member of the world sporting community. He has a mind of his own.” Juico said. “We had a talk with Bubka on November 15 last year and he affirmed the affidavit.” 

Both Juico and Bubka played major roles in Obiena earning a scholarship at the World Athletics elite pole-vault training camp in Formia, Italy in 2015 that was headed then and until by Petrov, who also groomed 2016 Rio Olympic Games gold medalist Tiago Braz of Brazil. 

Obiena has acknowledged his immense gratitude to Bubka in separate articles as the major reason why he was able to obtain a scholarship at the Italian elite training camp under Petrov’s coaching from 2015 to 2017.Paving the way for that was the young Obiena’s meeting with the legendary pole-vaulter on January 12, 2014, at the Manila Hotel where the then lanky and lean athlete was shown beaming as Bubka signed a national team jersey that the Philippine Pole Vault Club posted on Facebook.

He was shown with his father, national pole vault coach Emerson, former athletics coach Go Teng Kok and Bubka.

In an interview written by Ken Browne on the Olympic channel, Obiena recalls that fateful meeting.

“When he (Obiena) got a message (from PATAFA) saying the Ukrainian living legend Sergey Bubka, who held 35 pole vault world records, 6 world title and an Olympic gold medal, was in town, EJ went looking for an autograph and got a whole lot more,” Browne wrote of the occasion.

“I wouldn't be here without that moment,” Obiena said, looking back.

“I wouldn't be where I am now without him (Bubka), he opened lots, lots of doors for me. I would never have met my coach (Vitaly Petrov), wouldn't have met my training partner (Brazilian Rio Olympic gold medalist (Tiago Braz) , I wouldn't even be in Italy now. I wouldn't have made all the decisions I did without meeting him.

“I was just an 18-year-old jumping 5 meters, nothing sensational about it. And then he (Bubka) said, ‘If you jump 5 meters, we'll send you to Italy, you'll be able to train.’ And at that moment I saw world-class athletes every day (in Italy) and that kind of opened my eyes as a kid coming from the Southeast Asian region where track is not that big.

“I was just like, ‘Whoa, this is track.’ And this is actually pole vaulting, this is track and field. You know, you surround yourself with the people that you want to be, and I was surrounded by champions and elite athletes, and luckily I was able to become one as well.”

An even earlier interview on May 8, 2020 recounts how accommodating Bubka was during their pre-arranged meeting by Patafa through Juico.

“I found out from a text message (from PATAFA). I was 17 or 18 at the time, a young pole vaulter without any great results to my name, but that text from my national federation would change the course of my career,” Obiena said.

"What did it say? That Sergey Bubka was in town.

“Athletics may not be a big sport in the Philippines, but my father (Emerson) had been a pole vaulter, my mother a hurdler, so I knew all about the Ukrainian: 35 world records, 6 world titles and an Olympic gold medal. A living legend. I asked if I could meet him, hoping to get a photo and to have my shirt signed. In the end I got a whole lot more.

“I went with my family (at the hotel) and Bubka was so welcoming, inviting me to talk about pole vaulting. At the time my best was 4.90m, but he told me if I could jump 5 meters I’d qualify for an IAAF scholarship to train at the World Pole Vault Center in Formia, Italy.”


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-- Obiena lives up to Bubka’s pledge -- 

Obiena fulfilled his end of the bargain with Bubka, tying the old national record of 5.00 meters in placing 7th at the Taipei International Pole Vault Championship on March 26, 2014.

He then raised the ante by breaking the 22-year-old standard of Edward Lasquete of 5 meters flat at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, clearing 5.01 meters to rule the men’s pole vault event of the PATAFA-PSC weekly relays at PhilSports Complex oval on July 20,2014. 

In the same interview with Spikes, Obiena describes how awed he was in landing at the elite training center in the seaport city of Formia.

“I achieved that (goal of 5 meters flat) and set off later that year with my father, Emerson, who had coached me since I was a child. I had never been outside Asia and when I arrived in Formia, the facilities blew my mind. I saw world-class athletes every day, a who’s who of track and field, and I was completely star struck,” he described.

“We learned every day from Vitaly Petrov, who coached champions like Yelena Isinbayeva, Tiago Braz da Silva and Giuseppe Gibilisco ,in addition to Bubka.”

Given the huge influence and contribution Bubka has had on his career, something that he has done on record and in public, it was rather odd that Obiena suddenly set this aside when he found himself in hot water with PATAFA.

In his press statement on November 21 last year, a day after it was reported in one media outlet that PATAFA was after him for alleged non-payment of Petrov’s salaries since 2018 until August 2021, Obiena declared that:

“A simple question: What does the President of the Ukraine Olympic Committee have to do with this case? He is a great champion that I look up to, but he (Bubka) does not know of a situation between myself, my coach, and Philippine athletics, and plays no role to my team.”

He made a side reference to Bubka’s sworn statement on the controversy, saying: “There is continued discussion of a signed affidavit from former champion Sergey Bubka. This seems legitimate. But it also reads clearly that PATAFA somehow construed the entire case and cajoled Bubka into making the statement.”

-- Bubka’s ‘apostille’ affidavit --

Written in Cyrillic (Russian characters) and translated into English, Bubka’s affidavit is “an apostille”document notarized and issued in Ukraine and certified by the Ukrainian Justice Ministry last Oct. 28. This served as a basis for PATAFA’s inquiry into his handling of the Philippine Sports Commission’s funds given directly to Obiena, including the alleged unpaid salaries to Petrov.

According to Cambridge dictionary, an apostille is an official certificate from a government that makes a document from one country acceptable in another, or the system of using such certificates.

Simply put, Bubka’s affidavit would hold up and be recognized as evidence in Philippine courts were it to be used in a legal case.

In his 19-point affidavit, the World Athletics official stated that he had known the athletics chief since 2013 and his first meeting with Obiena “in the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014 in the Philippines.”

Bubla discussed extensively how the pole-vaulter got into the WA elite training center in Formia through his clout in the world athletic body and upon the request of Juico.

“Philip introduced EJ to me as the perspective (sic) athlete who needed the highly experienced coach in Europe to prove his results as (a) pole vaulter. Philip asked help in finding the coach for EJ, and I agreed to help as I also saw potential in this athlete,” Bubka said.

“Philip and I discussed the possibility to ask the IAAF about trainings for EJ to ask IAAF (International Association of Athletic Federation, as the WA was formerly known) under its scholarship program at the IAAF Centre in Formia, Italy.

“I said that I may ask Vitaliy Petrov, one of the best coaches in the world, who lived and worked in Formia, to train EJ. I advised Philip on how to organize the process of coaching EJ under the IAAF program in Formia. It was then decided that Philip, as president of PATAFA, would address to the IAAF the request to take EJ to the IAAF Center under the scholarship program. For my part, I addressed to Vitaliy and asked him to help and coach EJ in Formia.”

Bubka said he was unaware “about any agreements between PATAFA and Vitaliy till this September 2021.”

He said this surfaced during his initial conversation with Juico on September 8, 2021 where he said that “Philip called me on September 8, 2021 to ask the telephone number of Vitaliy to thank him (Petrov) for the high progress which EJ made under Vitaliy’s coaching.

“As we raised this topic we also began to talk about other questions concerning EJ and his coaching,” Bubka added.

He said during the same call: “I came to know about the agreement between EJ and PATAFA. During the conversation Philip informed me that PATAFA has been paying Vitaliy the monthly fee through EJ to compensate Vitaliy for his work as the coach since the beginning 2018.

“PATAFA agreed to this procedure as EJ informed PATAFA that it is impossible to sign any contracts with Vitaliy because Vitaliy didn’t know English and already had contracts with other federations, which prevents (sic) him from making any other agreements. Of course, all (of) this (sic) was not true.”

Bubka added: “He was at a loss that PATAFA was not in contact with Vitaliy and had no contracts with him. In addition, I was surprised that Vitaliy did not know English and had no opportunity to sign contracts with PATAFA as EJ said to Philip. It was not true.”

-- Bubka arranges meeting with Juico, Petrov --

Based on that conversation, he said: “I then proposed to organize a call between me, Philip and Vitaliy to clarify the situation,” which took place on September 9, 2021.

During that chat, Bubka swore that “it was revealed that paid Vitaliy (not directly) the monthly salary through EJ, but on the other hand, EJ claimed to Vitaliy that he didn’t receive that money and didn’t give any money to Vitaliy. In the meantime, he received 4,000.00 (euros) from EJ in 2020.

“In the conversation, Philip described the situation that PATAFA has paid Vitaliy the monthly fee through EJ in the amount of 2,000.00 (euros) every month since the beginning 2018 and now they (PATAFA) are trying to increase this fee to 5,000.00 euros on the request of EJ.

“Vitaliy said that he received about 4,000 euros in 2020 from EJ’s sponsor (presumably American businessman James Lafferty) and it was the only payment for his work which he received from EJ.”

Moreover, Bubka said that “last year (2020) he (Petrov) asked EJ why PATAFA didn’t pay anything for his coaching and EJ said that some money for his training was allocated by the Olympic (sic) Commission of the Philippines and sent to PATAFA. PATAFA used this money for other purposes. In other words, this money was stolen by PATAFA and EJ didn’t receive anything.

In Bubka’s affidavit, he stated that Petrov said “he didn’t raise the question of his monthly salary till the Olympic Games in Tokyo as he (Petrov) was sure that PATAFA had no money (as EJ always claimed to him).

“Only after the Olympic Games Vitaliy spoke to EJ and told him that he was already an elite athlete and could find money to pay his coach. Vitaliy asked EJ to pay him about 2,000.00 to 3,000 euros every month plus 10% commission from competitions bonuses.

“In the meantime, Philip said that EJ came to him after the Olympic Games in Tokyo as to (sic) president of PATAFA and asked to raise Vitaliy’s monthly fee from 2,000.00 to 5,000.00 euros.

“Philip also claimed that PATAFA has paid Vitaly through EJ about 100,000.00 euros for the entire period (since 2018).”

Bubka concluded his sworn statement by saying:

“I was always happy to see how quickly EJ achieved success under Vitaly’s coach and was happy with his results, for which he should be grateful to Vitaly, but I couldn’t believe such a thing could happen nowadays and that EJ could manipulate both of them — Philip and Vitaly — 2 people who always tried to do the best for him and bring him to the place he takes nowadays in sports.

“But as Vitaliy told me and I translated to Philip into English, EJ built a wall between them — Philip and PATAFA with Vitaliy, and that is why Vitaliy and Philip and PATAFA never communicated with each other.

“I am executing this Affidavit to confirm the truth and veracity of the foregoing statement.”

Using Bubka’s affidavit, the PATAFA launched a private and confidential administrative inquiry over Obiena’s handling of the PSC funds given directly to him for his training and competition expenses in his build-up to the Tokyo Olympic Games.

This was the money from the PSC, the fees of Petrov included, with Patafa’s approval and coursed through Obiena.

This resulted in the November 15, 2021 demand letter by PATAFA requiring him to return 85,000 euros involving the alleged unpaid wages since 2018 of Petrov, which was leaked to one media outlet, on November 20, 2021.

At a virtual press conference the following day, November 21, both athlete and coach insisted that Petrov had been fully paid.

In his chat with ANC “Headstart”, that huge bank transfers to Petrov’s account in Italy on November 4, 5 and 9 from banks in Manila and the United Arab Emirates. 

This issue has stirred a hornet’s nest that continues to hound local sports despite the earnest efforts of the PSC chairperson William “Butch” Ramirez’s to mediate between PATAFA and Obiena to settle the liquidation problem that began in early December of last year.

Following his successful minor knee surgery on January 12, Obiena said that his focus was resuming his athletic career by competing in the INIT indoor meet in Karlsruhe, Germany on Friday, January 28. 

While Bubka may have given Obiena his big break, his role in the thorny issue could also make or break either PATAFA or Obiena — possibly even both — unless it is amicably resolved soon.