MANILA, Philippines — Olympic pole vault qualifier EJ Obiena is holed up in Formia, an Italian city halfway between Rome and Naples, wondering if the Tokyo Games will push through in July but training six hours a day to stay in shape in case the IOC gives the green light to proceed.
Obiena, 24, qualified for the Olympics by clearing 5.81 meters in a Chiara, Italy, meet last September. The Olympic record is 6.03 meters (19 feet, 9 1/4 inches) set by Brazil’s Thiago Braz da Silva with whom Obiena trains in Formia. When a lockdown was ordered in Italy last week, Obiena stayed in the training center for two days and two nights with Da Silva and three Italian hurdlers, among others. Then, Obiena and the athletes were allowed to leave.
Formia has a population of 38,000. There are six cases of coronavirus infections in the city with no fatality. In a nearby town that is a 15-minute drive away, 50 cases were reported. The Italian epicenter in the Lombardy region is at least a six-hour drive from Formia.
“We’re on lockdown,” said Obiena in a WhatsApp interview yesterday. “Policemen are all over. The streets are clear. I have a form that permits me to walk less than a kilometer from my apartment to the training center. It’s about a five-minute distance on an electric scooter. I train twice a day, three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. The only change in my schedule is I now cook my own food. We used to be 12 or 15 athletes in the training center. But the tennis players have gone home so now, only five are left – Thiago, three hurdlers and myself. We’ve all been tested for the virus. Right now, sports isn’t a priority. The priority is the safety of everyone. This virus has created havoc all over the world. As an Olympic qualified athlete, I’m a bit sad but I realize what’s happening, that we need to be safe.”
Obiena said he’s not sure if the Olympics will go on. “It might not happen,” he said. “This virus isn’t slowing down. Italy has the highest death toll in the world and just registered 627 deaths in one day. But I received a notice the other day that the Diamond League and Grand Prix might resume at the end of May. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll continue training. If the Olympics are suspended, there’s no reason for me to stay in Italy. I can’t just train for the sake of training. It will depend on what my coach (Vitaly Petrov) tells me. I check on my parents every day and they’re fine. They stay in Tondo just by the border of Caloocan.”
Obiena said he recently did an eight-treatment ozone therapy program and the pain in his lower back has considerably diminished. “I do physio and my back is a lot better,” he said. “There’s still a bit of tightening up but it’s much less than before. It’s not 100 percent but I can jump now without pain. At the training center, I’m clearing 5.5 to 5.6 meters without a full approach and taking 12 steps. When the competition is coming close, I’ll start doing a full approach.”
Obiena said the pandemic has shut down several major events, including the Asian Indoor in Hangzhou last February, the World Indoor in Nanjing this month and the opening of the outdoor season in the US next month. But news of the Grand Prix and Diamond League pushing through came like a whiff of fresh air. “The Grand Prix is a circuit that’s supposed to start in Japan with two competitions then travels to Barcelona and other cities in Europe,” said Obiena. “The Diamond League is another world-wide competition starting in China then moving to Doha, Europe and Eugene, Oregon. They’re excellent preparation for the Olympics.”
Obiena said he’s excited that more Filipino athletes are qualifying for the Olympics, citing the recent elevation of boxers Eumir Marcial and Irish Magno. “It’s amazing,” he said. “I know more Filipino athletes are in line to qualify. I’m just hoping when the time comes, the IOC will make the right decision on whether or not to suspend the Games.”