MANILA (UPDATED) - "A textbook example of how to destroy an athlete."
This was how Filipino pole vaulter EJ Obiena described the allegations made against him by his own federation, the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA).
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on Sunday that PATAFA is ordering Obiena to return a sum of 85,000 euros (P4.8M), alleging that the pole vaulter did not pay the sum to his coach, Vitaly Petrov. Obiena was further accused that he "falsified the liquidations submitted" to the federation.
Because of the allegations, funding for Obiena -- who is training in Formia, Italy -- has been suspended. A committee was formed to investigate the matter, the Inquirer also reported.
Obiena, in a statement read to Philippine media on Sunday night, made it clear that the allegations made by PATAFA are "all false."
"I welcome any court of law to shed light under the power of evidence and investigate this matter," said the 26-year-old pole vaulter.
"I've also filed formal complaints with the POC (Philippine Olympic Committee), IOC (International Olympic Committee) and World Athletics, as we are now talking slander and defamation of character. I have retained legal counsel, and I do intend to pursue this vigorously," he added.
"The only resolution to this now, is a full and public withdrawal of investigation, and a full public apology from the authorities involved in this," he stressed.
Obiena was emphatic in saying that he had nothing to hide; he revealed that he had engaged PricewaterhouseCoopers to audit his financial dealings with PATAFA. He also acknowledged that some of his liquidation documents to PATAFA "were probably submitted late or in a sloppy fashion," but he pointed out that this is not a reason to make false accusations against him.
"I have not always handled the paperwork well, and I'm sorry, very, very sorry for this. But to take this fact and suddenly construe false accusation of theft and embezzlement is beyond honest or principle. It's a disgusting abuse of power, and it is in itself a criminal activity called slander and defamation of character," Obiena said.
Obiena was accompanied by his coach, the Ukrainian Petrov, to the press conference, and they displayed a copy of a letter sent by Petrov to PATAFA President Philip Ella Juico. There, Petrov made it clear that he has been paid the full amount of 85,000 euros by Obiena, and furnished proof of payment to PATAFA as well.
Petrov, in a statement, said he has no problems with Obiena whom he has been coaching since 2014.
"My coaching fee for the period in question is a total of 85,000 euros. I have been fully paid this sum by EJ, both directly and indirectly. I confirm this. I have no problem with EJ Obiena. All is good, and we are preparing for the world championships and of course, the Olympics in Paris in 2024," Petrov said.
The issue at hand, however, is "destroying" Obiena, the coach said.
"I worked with many countries and sports federations. 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 back the Philippine track and field program," said Petrov. "This is a shame."
Petrov, 83, has trained several Olympians including 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist Thiago Braz. Obiena credited him with elevating his performance, noting that he improved his marks by over a meter in the seven years that he has worked with Petrov.
Obiena, who holds the Philippine and Asian pole vault record of 5.93-meters, admitted that the situation has affected him adversely -- to the point where he is openly pondering retirement, especially if PATAFA refuses to apologize and retract the allegations against him.
"I haven't trained well in the past few weeks due to these allegations. My coach can attest to that; I cannot focus fully in training, I haven't trained the way I shouldn't be training, especially coming this year where a lot of championships are already in line," he said.
"I have really no answer to what I'm going to do moving forward from this. It affects me negatively, definitely. I haven't trained. I trained just to be present in training but, mentally having this dangling on my head, it's next to impossible for me to focus and deal with the things I should be dealing with, which is training," he added.
Obiena, in his statement, said it is clear to him that he cannot "operate under this kind of situation."
"If this (a full public apology from PATAFA) does not happen, I will consider my other options, being an immediate retirement from the sport that I love… I cannot continue to operate under this kind of situation. I am unable to focus and to train properly, with this hanging on my head. As I said, if you want a textbook example of how to destroy an athlete, you're seeing it right here and now," he said.
The Tokyo Olympian was especially shocked that the issue was leaked to the media, as Obiena wanted to resolve the matter in private.
"In any investigation, I think you should be asking both sides of the party to clear out everything. The easiest way for it to do is just sit it out together. If the alleged complaint is said to be that I have not fully paid my coach or I have done such, the best thing to do is have a sit down with my coach and me and all the truth will be stated. It's as simple as that, but I have no idea where exactly this came and I really find it overwhelmingly one-sided," he said.
Nonetheless, Obiena stressed that he does not consider this "a betrayal from my country," but rather a betrayal "by certain people." He did not close the door on continuing his pole vaulting career and representing the country in future events, but Obiena also made it clear that it was up to PATAFA to make the necessary steps to correct the issue at hand.
"I think it's unfair, unjust what is happening. There was no due process, there is no benefit of the doubt given to me. I think they have slandered my name," said Obiena. "I'm not closing any doors, I represent the federation, first of all, before anything else. I just... I deserve an apology, and I think a retraction of that and a public apology for whatever is happening."