Berland, Bob : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Berland, Bob

Robert Lee Berland


Country Represented:
United States

Years Competed:
1984, 1988

Medals Received:

Olympic Info:
One of the most inspirational athletes in the history of the Olympics, Berland was the 1984 Black Belt Magazine Judoka of the Year following his impressive performace at the Los Angeles Olympics. After almost losing his leg two months before the 1984 Games (see below), Bob became the first American in Olympic judo history to win a silver medal. A middleweight, Berland defeated Mohamed Sane of Guinea (by default) in the first round and then beat Magnus Buechel of Liechtenstein in the second round.

Bob then defeated British judoist Densign White in the quarterfinals and Brazilian Walter Carmona in the semis to reach the final. In the final, Berland faced Austria's Peter Seisenbacher and lost on an ippon (equivalent of being pinned or knocked out), but won the silver medal in one of the most amazing performances in Olympic history.

Berland returned to the Olympics four years later at the 1988 Seoul Games but did not repeat as a medal winner. He is currently coaching the sport and will be an assistant coach for the U.S. judo team at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

During the U.S. National Team's tour of Europe in March, 1984, Bob complained of pain in his right knee. A German doctor examined him, and proclaimed him fit to compete. But the pain continued, and Berland was forced to miss the final two stops on the tour. After returning to the U.S., Bob was diagnosed with ligament damage. Arthroscopic surgery was performed only months before the Olympics began. The anticipated short recovery suddenly became a serious problem when the surgical site developed a staph infection. The infection was not diagnosed for five days, and another surgery was required; had it gone untreated for a longer period, Berland might have lost his leg. His mother Carol said, "We feared for his life."

Bob was soon out of danger of losing either his leg or his life, but he still confronted a daunting predicament. He observed that "There were times when I'd look in the mirror and think, 'Who are you trying to kid. You can't even walk and it is a month before the Olympics." Berland remained optimistic, and determined to compete in the Games. He explained his stubborn faith in himself this way: "I couldn't see spending all that time and all the training and then losing it because of an infection. I couldn't deal with that. No matter what it took, no matter how long, no matter how tiring, no matter how painful, I was going to make it."

When he was released from the hospital, Berland had a mere six weeks to become physically fit for the Olympics. By the time the Games began, he estimated he was "70-80 percent physically, if I was lucky, but 150 percent mentally." Bob's astonishing display of skill and grit took him all the way to the gold medal match, which he lost to Austria's Peter Seisenbacher. Berland's Olympic coach, Paul Maruyama, said after the gold medal match: "He is a superb judo man...I'm proud of what Bobby did, especially because of that injury. To do what he did was absolutely amazing. Had Bobby not been injured, who knows, he could have really made history."

Career Highlights:
Berland began competing in judo as a youngster in Chicago in the Jewish Community Center's program, under the tutelage of Steve Cohen. In 1981, he won the gold medal at the U.S. Open, the Maccabiah Games, and the first of his five national titles in the middleweight division. The following year, he repeated as U.S. Open and national champion and captured the bronze medal at the Kano Cup.

In 1983, Berland three-peated as the U.S. national champion, won the silver medal at the Pan American Games, and the bronze medal at the World Championships. He also won the NCAA championship for the second consecutive year, as a student at San Jose State University. He graduated with a business degree in 1984. After his remarkable performance at the 1984 Olympics, Berland was named Black Belt Magazine Judoka of the Year and Olympian Magazine Player of the Year.

After competing in the 1985 World Championships, Berland won his fourth U.S. championship in 1986, and captured the gold medal at the Pan American Games. The following year, he won his fifth, and final, national championship and captured the bronze medal at the Paris Multinationals. He retired from international competition in 1988 after the Seoul Olympics.

A commodities trader who founded Olympic Futures in 1991, Berland is also the president of Berland Printing, a 70-year-old family business. A coach since his retirement, Berland has been a U.S. national team coach since 2001 and coached at the 2002 Pan American Games.

Birth and Death Dates:
b. Nov. 5, 1961

Chicago, Illinois

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Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, by Joseph Siegman (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000)