ILHAN MANSIZ – FROM SENEGAL TO SOCHI

You know the story;  Team meets footballer, footballer scores memorable goal, footballer leaves team, footballer competes at Winter Olympics........

Ilhan Mansiz scored the most important goal in the history of Turkish football. His Golden Goal strike against Senegal at the 2002 World Cup put Turkey into the semi-finals of football’s premier tournament for the first, and only, time in the nation’s history. But, at the ripe old age of 35, his greatest achievement as a sportsman could yet lie ahead of him.

Following triumph in Turkey’s version of popular reality TV show Dancing On Ice, Ilhan is now aiming to become the first ever athlete to compete in both a football World Cup and the winter Olympic games. Although it may sound like something from a Roy of the Rovers script, his ambitions aren’t as far-fetched as some may think.

Clearly the Olympic Games are a gigantic leap forward from a reality TV show. And having pulled on a pair of ice skates for the first time at the age of 33, Ilhan has no chance of winning an Olympic medal. But if we differentiate between being competitive and competing at the Olympics then the former Besiktas striker has every opportunity to achieve his goal.

Partnered by former Slovak champion – and now girlfriend – Olga Bestandigova, the pair’s first obstacle will be to win the Turkish nationals. Due to a lack of any other competitors in the discipline, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Bestandigova has already been a great beneficiary of the lack-of-competition factor in pairs figure skating throughout her career. In winning six Slovakian championships with brother Jozef Bestandig between 1997 and 2002, the pair only ever competed against a combined total of two other teams. The siblings finished 17 out of 20 at the 2002 Winter Olympics and subsequently retired before making a brief comeback in 2005 to reclaim the Slovakian title, beating just one other team.

That isn’t to belittle Bestandigova’s achievements; I highlight these points to give you an indication of how easy it would be for Mansiz to become Turkish champion. His true challenge will be to qualify for the Olympics.

For the Turkish Ice Skating Federation to gain the right to have a representative at the 2014 games a Turkish pairs team – certain to be Mansiz and Bestandigova – must finish in the top 16 at the previous year’s Figure Skating World Championships, or, be one of the four highest placed nations that haven’t already qualified at the subsequent 2013 Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf.

At the recent 2011 World Championships, 22 pair teams competed. In the preceding five years the number of entrants ranged from a low of 20 to a high of 25. Therefore, Ilhan and his partner will likely need to finish ahead of between four and nine other competitors at the 2013 World Championships in order to qualify for the Olympics. Should they fail to do so they will have a second chance at the Nebelhorn Trophy in the autumn prior to the games.

Mansiz and Bestandigova currently train in Oberstdorf, Germany and are coached by former German champion Alexander Konig. As with any new starter in any sport the initial learning curve is steep but often traversed rapidly, a point that is illustrated by the rapid improvement of celebrity skaters on Dancing On Ice.

Ilhan already looks like a competent skater and the various YouTube clips of him training in Germany show that he has improved further since his Dancing On Ice exploits. However, the true test of his ambitions will come down to whether or not he can master the wide range of complex and diverse technical skills that pair skating requires. Lifts and other elements that largely come down to strength and balance shouldn’t be too much of a problem, famed jumps such as the double toe loop and double salchow will provide a much sterner test for the figure skating novice.

He certainly has one important attribute in his favour. The will and desire to succeed.

“I started playing football very late too,” said Ilhan in a recent interview. “I didn’t start playing for a club until I was 14. If you’re really determined to achieve something and you believe you can do it or you work hard at it, it’s possible no matter how old you are.”

The pair are currently at a pre-season training camp before starting work on the ice again in June.

Ilhan won’t be winning any Olympic medals, should he get to Sochi 2014, but to compete at the highest level in two sports as diverse as football and figure skating is an achievement that should be applauded. Good luck to him.

James is an editor and regular contributor to football-bettingnews.com

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