Obiena, sharing flag duty with Didal, eyes gold as top Asiad athletics bet

EJ Obiena has yet 
to add an Asian Games gold to his trophy 
collection. —AFP
EJ Obiena has yet
to add an Asian Games gold to his trophy
collection. —AFP

And so it begins.

EJ Obiena, a prime candidate for a gold medal in the pole vault competition, kicks off his national team duties by sharing the flag-bearing task for the Philippine delegation with Margielyn Didal in Saturday’s opening ceremonies of the 19th Asian Games (Asiad) at the cavernous Hangzhou Olympic Centre Stadium here in Hangzhou, China.

“Many people [pat] me on the back for being Asia’s number one track and field athlete. I view this differently,’’ said Obiena, one of the spearheads of the 396-athlete Philippine contingent and the overall No. 1 athletics bet across all disciplines.

Obiena topped the Asian athletics rankings with 1443 points with javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra of India (1429) and Japanese 110m hurdler Shunsuke Izumiya (1417) lurking closely behind.

Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim (high jump) placed fourth overall with 1403 points and Japanese Masatora Kawano (35km walk) wound up fifth (1383).

“It’s a huge sense of honor and responsibility. In my profession, I am a visible symbol of the best from the amazing continent of Asia,’’ said the 27-year-old Obiena, the Asian champion and record holder of six meters in his event.

Based in Italy under the tutelage of renowned Ukranian coach Vitaly Petrov, Obiena recently placed second in the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, behind world record holder Armand “Mondo’’ Duplantis of Sweden.

Another silver finish at the Diamond League finals last week again won by Duplantis in Oregon, United States pushed Obiena to the No. 2 spot in the world rankings behind the Swede.

“I must not let Asia down. I must go into these international competitions and showcase the talent and capability of us all. I must also conduct myself with honor and dignity and never tarnish the greatness of Asia,’’ said Obiena.

‘One more’

After defending his Asian championships title two months ago in Bangkok, Thailand, Obiena is looking to close out his season with a gold medal in the Asiad, the only continental title lacking in his trophy room after placing outside of the medal rankings in 2018 in Indonesia.

“One more to go. I need to own this and understand that I have a target on my back. The pressure is building up but that’s a privilege. I have to be committed in every jump,’’ said Obiena, the first and so far the only Filipino qualifier in next year’s Paris Olympics.

Competition has already started in several other disciplines with rower Joanie Delgaco finishing second in her semifinal heat on Friday to advance into the medal race of the women’s single sculls at Fuyang Water Sports Center.

Delgaco, a 2019 Southeast Asian Games gold medalist, reached the line in eight minutes and 18.30 seconds behind Japanese Shiho Yonekawa’s 8:06.32 clocking over the 2,000-meter distance.

The national rowers, however, lost one medal hope after Tokyo Olympian Cris Nievarez finished fourth in his semifinal heat in the men’s single sculls with a time of 7:25.65—crashing out of the medal race.

Nievarez checked in three seconds slower than third-placer Balraj Panwar of India (7:22.22) in the race topped by China’s Liang Zhang (7:12.77) and Kazakhstan’s Vladislav Yakovlev (7:19.27).

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Only the top three finishers in each of the two semifinal heats progressed to the finals scheduled for Monday. INQ