(Updated: April 20, 2022 4:24 p.m.) “A true patriot.”
This was how some Filipinos described world-ranked pole vaulter EJ Obiena after he announced that he will be the country’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the 31st Southeast Asian Games next month.
The 26-year-old athlete will carry the Philippine national flag in the traditional parade of nations on May 12 at the My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Obiena was nominated alongside Tokyo Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz but the organizers said that only one of them can carry the flag in the regional showpiece.
“We nominated Hidilyn and EJ, but it was turned down,” Philippine Olympic Committee president Bambol Tolentino said, adding that they were told only one athlete can be the flag-bearer.
“Like Hidilyn, EJ has all the qualifications to be our flag bearer,” he said.
Obiena was also slated to carry the flag in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but he wasn’t able to do so due to his schedule.
At that time, flag-bearers must be in Japan 48 hours before the beginning of the event for COVID-19 protocols. Obiena’s flight was scheduled on the same day.
In a Facebook post, Obiena said he is honored to carry the Philippine flag.
“It is my pride and honor to be carrying our (Philippine emoji) flag in the opening ceremony of the upcoming SEA Games in Hanoi. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the sports governing bodies of the Philippines for giving me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Obiena said on Monday.
“Thank you @officialpatafa for your blessing to do this; Thank you @olympic.ph for your nomination and thank you @phil.sportscommission for your support,” he added, tagging the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA), Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) and the Philippine Sports Commission.
“I am not just representing athletes but over 100 million proud Filipinos. Maraming salamat po ate @hidilyndiaz for guiding me and enabling me to have this opportunity. I am blessed to have such a humble role model to look up to. #roadtohanoi #parasabayan,” Obiena continued, tagging Diaz.
His post has earned 6,000 reactions so far, with 3,600 of which love reactions and 2,300 likes.
Obiena will defend the SEA Games gold medal he won in 2019 through a record-breaking clearance of 5.45 meters.
Obiena’s post was warmly received by his supporters who called him a “true patriot” for choosing to represent the Philippines despite previously figuring in a months-long rift with PATAFA over liquidation issues.
The athlete was recently cleared by the Commission on Audit as well.
“Praise (and) thank God for (your) vindication, EJ. There’s no one more deserving than you! Your Ate Hidilyn Diaz is (the) epitome of our Lord, Jesus in John 5:13, ‘There is no greater love than this: that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends.’ Continue to bring honor (and) glory for the Philippines, EJ!” a supporter wrote in the Facebook comments.
“Deserve mo ‘yan,” another Filipino commented on his post.
“You deserve that, EJ. You have brought honor to the country and yet underwent a painful trial by publicity,” wrote a different Facebook user.
“Nakaka-proud ka po. Isa kang tunay na bayani, EJ Obiena, sa henerasyong ito. Saludo talaga ako sa’yo. Ipinaglaban mo ang para sa’yo at sa bayan. Isa kang tunay na makabayan!” exclaimed another Filipino with emojis.
“A true Filipino patriot… proven (and) tested… ‘di bumitaw sa watawat,” commented a different supporter.
Last January, Obiena vowed to continue representing the Philippines amid PATAFA’s recommendation to drop him from the national team due to their funding row.
In November 2021, the athlete was accused of allegedly mishandling his funds when the National Sports Association claimed that he missed out on paying his coach Vitaly Petrov despite the funds given to him as salary.
The issue caused Obiena to miss the World Indoor Championships because of PATAFA’s non-endorsement.
The dispute between the parties was eventually settled last March.
Interaksyon Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story indicated that Obiena’s coach Petrov was declared persona non-grata by POC. This error has been removed from the story.