Obiena resists offers to switch nationalities

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    STAYING PUT: EJ Obiena refuses to be dazzled by naturalization offers.
    STAYING PUT: EJ Obiena refuses to be dazzled by naturalization offers.

    AFTER winning the pole vault gold medal over a crack field at the Asian track and field championships in Doha, Qatar last April, Olympic-bound Ernest John Obiena received lots of offers to switch nationalities but he has turned them all down.

    “After the Asian championships, marami pong nag-offer sa kanya. But he is proud in carrying the Philippine flag,” Obiena’s mother, Jennet, said in an exclusive interview with Malaya-Business Insight.

    The 6-foot-2 Obiena, 23, became the first Filipino athlete to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games last Sept. 4 after clearing 5.81 meters to surpass the qualifying standard of 5.80 meters at the Salto Con L’Asta competitions in Piazza, Italy.

    “Duon talaga ang puso niya na kaya nating mga Pilipino (to achieve). It was an eye-opener that we Filipinos can!” the proud mother exclaimed.

    Some rich Asian countries often take a shortcut in their bid to win on the world stage, inviting standouts from other nations to switch nationalities and compete for them.

    A famous example is Turkey’s Olympic and world weightlifting champion Naim Suleymanoglu, who was born in neighboring Bulgaria. Dubbed the “Pocket Hercules,” he won gold medals in the 1988 Seoul, 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

    The rich Middle Eastern country of Qatar is known for naturalizing African runners to compete for them in international competitions as well as the city-state of Singapore, which recruits mainland Chinese to boost its bid in table tennis and fencing.

    For his recent outstanding performance, Obiena was featured in the online Philippine edition last Sept. 12 of the prestigious international magazine Esquire, along with other young outstanding Pinoy athletes such as Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games silver medalist Christian Tio and world women’s jiu-jitsu champion Meggie Ochoa.

    “Currently ranked 10th in the world, Obiena is Asia’s reigning champion in pole vaulting. He is arguably the best pole vaulter the Philippines has produced, and he’s only getting started,” Esquire writer Anri Ichimura wrote glowingly of the pole vaulter.

    It was the third time the tall and lanky athlete reset his own national mark this year, doing it in the Italian meet organized exclusively for pole vaulters and sanctioned by the International Association of Athletic Federations, led by former outstanding British middle-distance runner Sebastian Coe.

    Obiena began his assault with a gold-medal leap of 5.71 meters at the Asian trackfest in Doha, followed by another gold medal win with a clearance of 5.76 meters at the 2019 World Universiade in Napoli, Italy last July.