March 20th, 2009
10:48 AM ET
5 years ago

Obama apologizes for Special Olympics comment

President Obama chats it up with Jay Leno on 'The Tonight Show' on Thursday.
President Obama chats it up with Jay Leno on 'The Tonight Show' on Thursday.

(CNN) – President Obama apologized Thursday night for an offhanded remark during his appearance on The Tonight Show that appeared disparaging toward Special Olympic athletes.

White House officials confirm the president called Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver before the show aired to personally apologize for the remark. One official said Obama expressed his disappointment over the comment and his intention not to humiliate the disabled.

iReport: What do you think about the president's comments?

The comment came midway through Obama's appearance on the late night comedy show, when host Jay Leno quipped about the president's lack of bowling skills: “I imagine the bowling alley [in the White House] has just been just burned and closed down," Leno said.

“No, no. I have been practicing,” Obama said. “I bowled a 129. It's like — it was like Special Olympics, or something."

Watch: CNN's Suzanne Malveaux looks at Obama's Tonight Show appearance

The Special Olympics, founded in 1968, is a nonprofit organization serving people with mental and physical disabilities. The Special Olympics holds its “Special Olympics World Games” every other year.

The White House immediately tried to undo any damage, releasing a statement before the show aired stating the president in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics."

"He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world," Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said.

Related: Obama mixes politics, comedy on 'Tonight Show'

According to White House officials, Obama also extended an invitation to Special Olympic athletes to come bowl or play basketball at the White House.

Appearing on ABC's Good Morning America Friday Morning, Shriver said Obama was "very sincere" in his apology.

"[He] expressed an openness and an interest in being more engaging in the movement and said he was a fan of the movement," Shriver said. "And I think importantly said he was ready to have some of our athletes over the White House to bowl or play basketball or help him improve his score."

During the campaign season, then-candidate Obama described his bowling skills as “terrible” after scoring 37 when he hit the lanes on the campaign trail in Altoona, Pennsylvania. A perfect score is 300


Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (789 Responses)
  1. Nacho

    Well, good on the WH for being on top of it, but I personally don't see it as a big deal. I gave a little chortle (whether or not that means I'm going to hell, well, that would mean a belief in it, anyway, right?), especially since I've seen our President bowling.

    … he's pretty awful.

    But a 129 is better than most scores I've ever had, so good on him for getting into the double digits! ;)

    March 20, 2009 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  2. Ray Fisher

    Hey, I'm crippled and I didn't take offense. The President must be allowed to joke and if some are offended, then get over it, there was no offense intended!!!

    March 20, 2009 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  3. chad

    that was really great to say mr obama! your such a leader!

    March 20, 2009 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  4. Thebe

    Give me the average score of a Special Olympics bowler and I'll tell you whether you should be offended or not. Otherwise, shut up about a big nothing.

    March 20, 2009 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  5. Ever notice how.....

    when Obama shows you who he really is; his supporters say it's time to move on? Hysterical.

    March 20, 2009 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  6. JB

    I was suprosed to even see CNN report this. Yesterday the fact that he 'poked fun' that his bowling like the Special Olympics shows the kind of person he is. There is a reason why no president had been on a show like that. You cant be the leader of the free world and make crack pot jokes on TV. I know he meant it as a joke but come one, this country has more pressing things to worry about than going on the Tonight Show. Doesn't he have Veterens benefits to take away? This guy is proving he is/was not qualified for the job but the American people will always view him differently. Why aren't people talking about he has already spent more than Bush in his terms. $1.2 Trillion already and he wants to do more? Are you kidding. Our open era of transperancy and recovery.org does not even know where the money is going. With all these problems, does anyone really think the government should run our helthcare system?

    March 20, 2009 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  7. Gretel

    GOP "CRITICISMS OF THE WEEK CLUB." The books sell at $1, so please order your rushed copy today!

    1. OBAMA is too informal in the WH by not wearing a Jacket in the Oval Office.
    2. Obama has tax cheats in his administration
    3. Obama is spending money to redistribute wealth -AKA Socialism
    4. Obama wants to punish high achievers
    5. Obama wants to triple the deficit
    7. Obama caused the recession
    8. Obama caused the outrageous bonuses on Wall Street
    9. Obama is making us less safe from terrorists
    10. Obama is not doing enough
    11. Obama is doing too little
    12. Obama is on the campaign trail again
    13. Obama is focusing on Basketball and not on the economy
    14. Obama is going on comedy show and not doing his job
    15. Obama makes a "gaffe" on Leno, and LETS HOPE THAT IT'S THE ONLY THING THE MEDIA FOCUSES ON TODAY.
    16. We have no Ideas, no Solutions, and we can only engage in petty criticisms of the new popular president

    March 20, 2009 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  8. Mari

    Oh brother...... on my hand the far-right-folks complain when we on the Left, defend the president. And on the other hand the far-right are SO deeply sensitive that they take offense over every little thing. This is incredibly hypocritical!

    Everyone and anyone can make a mistake, none of us are perfect. Or shall we start listing all that gaffes from the Bush years???

    March 20, 2009 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  9. bluesky

    Oh, heavens, people, lighten up. He was making disparaging remark about his own bowling skills, not about the Special Olympics. In fact, if you asked the guy, he would probably admit that a Special Olympics bowler could whup him in the bowling alley.

    March 20, 2009 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  10. Shaun

    Although it's in poor taste.....it's a well known 'figure of speech'.....of course there was no mean spirited targeting of this highly respected organization! I didn't even notice he made that comment as I watched the show.

    March 20, 2009 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  11. MLH

    Not a good thing, poor taste and poor judgment. However, he isn't the first guy to trip on his words, so let's just chill. Most of us have made comments that we wouldn't want judged by the entire world, and this is no different.

    March 20, 2009 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  12. Matt

    Oh my god! Our president is human! What a revelation...

    At least Obama's gaffes haven't led to thousands of dead. "Mission Accomplished", anybody?

    March 20, 2009 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  13. Jean

    Can everyone now admit Obama is no more competent or any better able to communicate than say.....hmm...George Bush? Wow America, do we know how to pick a president or what? NOT. Obama talks out of both sides of his big mouth on every "policy" he has stated – one week it is one thing, the next week his "policy" changes to be the exact opposite of what he said the week before. Yep, yep, incompetence and underhanded – now that we know he was responsible for the AIG bonuses being paid out. God bless America....we are going to need it.

    March 20, 2009 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  14. Kevin in Ohio

    Pegasus, Nelson, and Brain...... this is not nit-picking.... in fact, i am very surprised CNN reported it at all. The point that most posters here are trying to make.... if a Republican had ever even come close to saying such a thing, the demands for their immediate execution would come flying from the left. Your comments reflect the double-standard of the left.

    March 20, 2009 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  15. Chyna

    I am begining to enjoy listening to the Republicons whining!

    March 20, 2009 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  16. Alex

    I can just hear the Obama bashers now - IMPEACH HIM!

    Come on people, there's far more important things going on than whether he misspoke (and it sounds like the Special Olympics are going to get some extra presidential attention WITHOUT HAVING TO ASK FOR IT, so it's all for the good. By this time in his presidency, Bush had made so many gaffes you could have filled a book. Obama is going to be president for the next 4 years, most likely 8 if the GOP continues its self-destruction. Deal.

    March 20, 2009 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  17. kate

    I can't believe he made that comment. By the Grace of God he doesn't have disability or his children. Does he realize that their are blind men and women out there who also bowl perfect or near perfect games.

    March 20, 2009 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  18. Steve

    It was the dumb mistake, like all of us make sometimes. He rightfully apologized, and that should be the end of it. Of course, Obama haters will be all over it, which just shows how pathetic and trivial they are.

    March 20, 2009 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  19. Scott

    Mike in Texas....Good call on the koolaid drinker. She showed up right after your comment.....

    March 20, 2009 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  20. Fair is Fair

    Hanging around with Biden too much?

    March 20, 2009 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  21. Mike in VA

    I bet Obama hugged TOTUS (Teleprompter of the United States) when he got back to his hotel.

    March 20, 2009 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  22. Michael Palumbo

    Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. His arrogance is telling with his comment about special olympics. He has no regard for the lowly in this world, but not surprising considering his stance on abortion and even the heinous crime of late term abortion.

    March 20, 2009 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  23. Mike in Connecticut

    I actually laughed out loud when I read Obama's joke about Special Olympics. He was on Leno, of all places. I hope nobody is actually offended by this. Let's stay real, any of us could have made that joke if we thought of it.

    March 20, 2009 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  24. Rebecca

    There is no excuse for his remark. Pres. Obama should especially know that there is no place in this world for putting people down or making fun of anybody whether it be a race or a disability. He is an adult and he knew he was on national television. He should have been very aware of what words he used. And, if he or his staff knew he had made a "gaffe" before the show even aired, why didn't NBC take out that particular comment? I'll tell you why. Because they knew people would laugh at it and "that's what people want from that show – to laugh" even though it was at the expense of some very special people in this world. Special Olympics deserves more than just a glib apology from Pres. Obama's staff.

    March 20, 2009 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  25. carl

    I think is was actually talking about Congress!

    March 20, 2009 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
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