A ballerina’s fall from grace | Sunday Observer

A ballerina’s fall from grace

20 June, 2021
Anna-Marie Ondaatje performing her rhythmic gymnastics
Anna-Marie Ondaatje performing her rhythmic gymnastics

Anna-Marie Ondaatje given the cold shoulder for Tokyo Olympics despite becoming the first Sri Lankan to win a medal in rhythmic gymnastics:

Anna-Marie Ondaatje became the pin-up girl of Sri Lanka after making her debut at the 35th FIG Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships in Pesaro, Italy in 2017 and in Sofia, Bulgaria the following year. She created history at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, where she was placed sixth in the club apparatus finals and 11th all-around. She also qualified for the finals in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Canadian-born teenager waltzed her way into the hearts of fans in the island since making a decision to switch her dual nationality to Sri Lanka where her ancestry runs deep. She was acclaimed as a brand ambassador of the sport by the international governing body FIG and became the darling of the media because of her beauty and grace as a ballerina. Sri Lankan officials also embraced her with open arms and bestowed multiple awards acknowledging not only her unique talents but for uplifting the lives of people through the A Quint Ondaatje Foundation Sri Lanka.

Anna-Marie seemed destined to achieve her childhood dream of featuring in the Olympics but sadly fell out of the radar of the authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic, denying an athlete who was primed to bring glory to Sri Lanka to showcase her talents on the biggest stage despite winning two gold medals at the Zurich Cup in Switzerland last year.

“Unfortunately, I will not be representing my mother country Sri Lanka at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games in rhythmic gymnastics. The tripartite invitation place was in our favour, but unfortunately under technical conditions, we were unable to be granted this by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

“I am definitely saddened by these circumstances and not what I hoped for. Nonetheless there are many more competitions looking forward to representing Sri Lanka. There are still Olympic Games 2024 and Commonwealth Games and many more opportunities,” said Anna-Marie, barely concealing her disappointment in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

“Missing out on the Tokyo Olympics was definitely a disappointing time for myself, my parents, my supporters, and of course Sri Lanka’s rhythmic gymnastics future as a community in itself. However, this does not impact my perspective on life or my future goals. Having brought rhythmic gymnastics to Sri Lanka, I will continue to put my best effort forward and do what I can to continue to uplift the sport and proceed with my future goals,” said the 20-year-old who fell in love with gymnastics at the age of nine and represented Canada before switching her loyalty in 2017.

“I have no regrets switching my flag from Canada to Sri Lanka. I am so proud and honoured to be able to represent my mother country Sri Lanka. It is a reminder to myself of my roots that made me and brought me to where I am today. Today, my generational history plays a role in nearly everything I do, and I believe this is part of what drives my purpose,” she said.

But Anna-Marie’s father Alistair Ondaatje who has virtually mentored and managed her career was more forthright and outraged at the treatment meted out to her by the authorities concerned.

“If our NOC (National Olympic Committee) had put in their application to IOC requesting a position for Anna-Marie, there would have been a great chance that she would have been able to go. Even though we made an application to our NOC, we don’t know whether they put in an application for Anna to the IOC. Even if they did, whether they put their best foot forward we don’t know. That is a question we don’t have an answer for,” he said.

NOC officials were not available for comment.

“Since last year’s pandemic situation we did make an application for a technical quota for Anna-Marie. However, the only reply was ‘good luck, all the best’,” he said.

“We have really exceeded ourselves and did our best to put Sri Lanka on the map with a brand new sport. We have accomplished that but we haven’t fulfilled our ultimate goal yet,” he added.

“We went for multiple competitions. We were self-funded. It was always my dream to give back to the country. I didn’t want to take anything. We wanted to do it because that was our pride and joy,” he reiterated.

“She worked hard. She tried her best. We have done our best to promote the sport. We don’t regret it. It’s just that if that opportunity (Olympics) was there, it would have been greater in putting Sri Lanka on a different platform for a new sport. Not for her personally only but for the future generation,” he said.

Anna-Marie comes with a pedigree with her family tree comprising the renowned Ondaatje brothers, Sir Christopher, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian-English businessman, philanthropist, adventurer, writer and bobsledding Olympian for Canada who lives in Chester, Nova Scotia Canada and the United Kingdom. As well as his brother, author Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan born Canadian poet, fiction writer, essayist, novelist, editor and filmmaker who is the recipient of multiple literary awards including the Booker Prize.

Among her ancestors are William Jurgen Ondaatje Mudaliyar of The Governor’s Gate, and the first Shroff of the first bank of Ceylon (1847). Her grandfather, Erwin Donald Jamesworth Ondaatje was an entrepreneur and coordinating secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka in the late 80s. Her great grandfather, Baba Drahim Bahar, was employed by the king of England to superintend the vast saltern at Hambantota. His son, Junnur Haji Bahar succeeded to this prestigious position at the same time, also being appointed Mudaliyar of the Magam Pattu, Hambantota.

“The moments I cherish most when living in Sri Lanka are whenever I get a chance to share a moment with the youth, I love sharing my knowledge with them and having an open discussion. I am also so grateful when I get the opportunity to perform and demonstrate the beautiful all girls sport of rhythmic gymnastics to schools and the younger generation. Anytime I visit Sri Lanka, I adore the weather, the people, and look forward to any chance I get to give back to my mother country through my charity foundation, A Quint Ondaatje Foundation Sri Lanka,” said Anna-Marie whose other great ambition is to emulate her great aunt, Maureen Hingert, who was the only beauty queen of Sri Lanka to be the runner-up at the Miss Universe Contest in 1955.

“During my stay in Sri Lanka in 2019, I established the A Quint Ondaatje Foundation. As the goodwill ambassador, we have held many charity events to give back. So far we have donated to areas such as sports, education, handicapped, and underprivileged children,” she said on her work with the foundation.

“I am ambitious to focus on human rights, basic needs (food, clothing, and shelter), creating change in areas of health and safety, education, gender equality, foster, abuse, women, disaster response, refugee, sports development, arts, culture, and heritage, rural transformation and urban renewal.

“We want to partner with government, public and private sectors and foster greater public awareness of urgent issues,” added Anne-Marie who has created her own brand AnnaQuintO to develop cosmetics specifically and aquatic wear.

Asked how she manages to wear so many hats and whether it weighs heavily on her young shoulders, Anna-Marie replied: “I am grateful to carry the role of an influential person. I feel that I have gained a lot of knowledge and experience throughout my continuous time and travels of being an athlete and I really love to share this with the next generation. This type of pressure can weigh heavy at times, but nonetheless this is minor, and temporary weight since the love returned is well received and the impact is accounted for.”

She was fired up by an Olympic dream in rhythmic gymnastics having displayed an interest in ballet at an early age but what is the motivating factor for her now after falling short of reaching the summit?

“Of course every athlete wants to go far in sport and the highest you can reach is the Olympic Games. That was one of the many goals. I am still continuing to look forward to future competitions. I will continue working hard to represent Sri Lanka at the upcoming competitions: the Rhythmic Gymnastics World Championships, Asian Championships, 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, Asian Games 2022 in Hangzhou Zhejiang, China, 2022 Summer Fisu World University Games, and to represent my mother country Sri Lanka as the first Rhythmic Gymnast to compete at the Olympic Games at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France,” said Anna-Marie who will be enrolling in university this year to study Business Management.

She is putting on a brave face and staying physically active during the pandemic without any competition.

“Overall, I am doing well. Throughout the entire pandemic I have been training every day non-stop. I have been anticipating competitions to restart since our lockdown. Of course, this pandemic is not an easy time for everyone. It can be hard to stay disciplined and not lose sight of your goals. I never wanted to get out of shape, so I kept training everywhere, in my living room, basement, parks, trails, and am continuing to make the most of my time. One thing I realised is that everyone is in a tough position,” she said.

Asked what is the legacy she would leave behind, she said: “I would like to be remembered as someone who was influential, inspiring, and contributed to building a positive society, and someone who led everyone to know that, ‘We are all Equal and Here for a Purpose’.”