Sports stardom and public interest

Published January 18, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Former Senator Atty. Joey D. Lina


Former Senator Atty. Joey D. Lina

The saga of Novak Djokovic, the world’s number one men’s tennis player from Serbia, and our very own star pole vaulter Ernest John Obiena can be described as tortuous.

So complicated and full of twists and turns indeed – especially the still simmering controversy plaguing Obiena and Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (Patafa) president Philip Ella Juico – compared to the squabbles in the early ‘90s when I chaired the Senate committee on youth and sports.

Djokovic’s intense desire to make tennis history by clinching 21 Grand Slam crowns was dealt a blow last Sunday when he lost his final bid to avoid deportation and compete in the Australian Open that started yesterday.
His refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 had prompted Australia’s immigration minister to cancel his visa. The decision was appealed but three Federal Court judges unanimously dismissed Djokovic’s attempt to overturn the cancellation.

“This cancellation decision was made on health, safety and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

It had seemed Djokovic’s fight to stay in Australia was doomed, despite an earlier ruling by another judge allowing him to stay on the grounds that border officials were “unreasonable” in handling his entry. Such ruling infuriated many in a country where COVID cases are surging, despite over 90 percent of adults already vaccinated.

For Australians who had to endure some of the world’s strictest restrictions, Djokovic was seen as someone who was above the rules. Many Australians felt disdain for the rich and famous who can do as they please while ordinary people had to make great sacrifices in dealing with the pandemic.

But in Serbia where around half of the population remain unvaccinated, it seemed it was in the public interest for Serbians to go all-out in their support for Djokovic’s struggle to join the Australian Open. In his home country, Djokovic is deemed a sports superstar who “has transcended sport and become a projection – of Serbian global success, triumph, and resilience after decades of international criticism and opprobrium.”

“For many Serbs, each one of Novak’s victories is, in a sense, their own victory,” says Prof. Jelena Subotić, an analyst on Serbia and the Balkans. Even outside of Serbia, Djokovic is considered a sports hero “with a global fanbase and a string of endorsements worth tens of millions of euros.” His failure to make history in the world of tennis, apparently due to his own fault, is certainly upsetting to his international fans.

As to Filipino pole vault star Obiena, who currently ranks number six in the world and was the lone Asian to make the pole vault final in the Tokyo Olympics last year, his long-running saga isn’t over.

Patafa accused him of misappropriating public funds meant for the salary of his coach, Vitaly Petrov. The Philippine Olympic Committee took the side of Obiena as its ethics committee declared Juico “persona non grata.”

Juico said Obiena allegedly misappropriated EUR 61,026.80 (₱3,661,608) released to him by the Patafa and the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) for coaching fees. Obiena called the accusation “slanderous” as he denied it. “The only thing we truly own in life is our reputation,” Obiena said.

But Juico also has a reputation to protect. He insists that public funds are involved and Patafa has all the right to look into what happened to the money handed to Obiena. “We should account for all the funds, government and private, given to us,” Juico explained.

Knowing Juico since way back in the late 80s when I was senator, I believe he has a point. Even the legendary runner Elma Muros-Posadas, one of the most successful track and field stars during the 90s, knows that Juico is doing right.

In a recent ANC interview, the 15-time Southeast Asian Games gold medalist asked Obiena to humble himself as she told him how lucky he was now. “You should be humble and follow the rules of Patafa. Whatever rules and regulations there are, as athletes we have the responsibility to the nation…He’s very lucky as an athlete. Very lucky. There are many world class athletes who [don’t have issues] like this,” Muros said.

“During my time, we didn’t have that much money… we write down all our travel expenses. We jot down everything in our notebook and we sign it. We spend ₱7 in the mornings, then we have to go back for lunch or dinner because we have instructions to liquidate [our expenses]. Even as small as 50 centavos, I will liquidate that to explain where the money went,” she said.

While it is in our public interest for government to take good care of our athletes who bring glory and honor to our country, it is also in the public interest to ensure that the public money is also well cared for.

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