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. Joseph

    The special Olympics are a joke really, i feel bad for watching it, it seems more like entertainment than an authentic athletic competition. Like watching the fox shows when they have a bunch of midgets pulling an airplane

    March 20, 2009 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  2. Nick

    I was stunned to hear him flying around monuments in DC, bowling a 129, and then cracking jokes about the Special Olympics. Shouldn't he be helping America get out of the financial crisis as he put it on day 1. He is really immature and I'm tired of him speaking out of 2 sides of his mouth. Say what you mean, and do what you say! Washington and Adams are turning over in their graves. Help us all, dear GOD.

    By the way my credit score is looking like a 129 Mr. President!

    March 20, 2009 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  3. Sniffit

    OK Mike in VA, I have to admit, that one was funny...TOTUS...lol.

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  4. Dan

    "jack March 20th, 2009 10:06 am ET

    fix the economy"

    -------------------------------–

    you mean the economy that your republicans broke?

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  5. Bored

    There aremany sports that make me feel like I'm in the Special Olympics. Give the President a break. People are really jealous of the Obama family shame on you. Why does there have to be insults through at the children and First Lady. Get a life.

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  6. RJ in NYC

    I find it interesting how this keeps getting "moderated out".....

    " Lets get a transcript of every word you say, publish it, and see how you look "in the public eye."
    "Hide behind the internet and make your snide remarks."
    ——————————————————————————————
    You mean the way DNC operatives do? Or Moveon.org? Or Keith Olberman or anyone at any of the major print or television outlets?
    anyone? anyone? …..

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  7. Kyle

    OBAMA SHOULD BE IN THE WHITE HOUSE WORKING ON THE ECONOMY! – What is that all about? You think that's all he should be doing? Should everyone with GM or AIG or Merrill Lynch or Chrysler or any other company failing be locked in their office fixing the problem? Give the man some credit. He's trying to show the Americans in Deep Panic mode to relax and have some fun. He's trying to show that he has 2 sides to him. Oh, and if you are at work playing on CNN, you may want to get back to work. I mean after all, we should all be trying to help improve the economy.

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  8. Nick in Canada

    Evidently there are a lot of people out there that are Saints. To think, living full lives and never making a distasteful joke, or comment or not laughing at something inappropriate.

    Look at yourselves before you judge. As for me, I wasn't offended. Hope you all don't think I'm a bad man now?

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  9. Brian

    The Special Olympics should run with this comment and set up a competition between President Obama and their best bowler. I bet the President would lose.

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  10. Ed

    If it came out of his mouth and said it, he meant it !!!

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  11. Anne

    You people need to lighten up. Lets be real here has anyone seen the special olympics. They arent exactly the most coordinated people out there. And to those who live with disabilities and want to be anal about things you may want to think abott the fact that yout attitudes make people feel uncomfortable about you not your disability although you love to blame that on thr world.

    March 20, 2009 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  12. Zack

    We are all a little politically incorrect sometimes. We need to not be so sensitive about it. If anything, we all need to have thicker skins.

    March 20, 2009 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  13. sandy

    Pres. Obama is a human being just like the rest of us. He works hard, he plays, he makes jokes, and he rests. He is allowed to, and should, have a normal life outside of work just like any other employed person. His comment about Special Olympics was simply a metaphor that he bowls with a handicap (in this case, his handicap is lack of experience or coordination or whatever?) This should not in any way indicate he is cold-hearted or unappreciative of the handicapped people in our society. HOW can we have all the problems of the world on our shoulders and spend hours of press time and staff time reviewing and analyzing a simple comment like this. Grow up, America!

    March 20, 2009 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  14. Seth

    For me this is not a bash Obama thing. I am a parent of a special needs child & was very hurt by the joke. I know his office apologized (would be nice if he actually makes a statement himself) but hearing the joke was very upsetting. I would have felt the same if Bush made the statement.

    March 20, 2009 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  15. Tom in Delaware

    Ok- I'll try to get this by the censors again...

    We've much greater things to worry about in this country….like the 1 Trillion Dollars that the Fed decided to print up the other day (causing the price of Oil and Gold to shoot up like MAD), and yet the Media doesn't consider an event like that to be newsworthy.

    CNN- Do you plan on censoring this forever?

    How about one of your crack cub reporters tackling the unconstituionality of the Bill of Attainder the House just rammed through.

    After all, everything else they've rammed through has gone over SO WELL!

    Try being a watchdog instead of a lapdog….your'e humiliating yourselves.

    March 20, 2009 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  16. RealityKing

    Keep laughing progressives.., Obama is stirring America right down Japans path of destructive deficit spending..

    >>>
    Desperate Japanese head to 'suicide forest'
    Aokigahara Forest is known for two things in Japan: its views of Mount Fuji and suicides. Fired from a job, Hundreds of Japanesse buy one-way tickets to the forest. Once there..., Japan's suicide rate, already one of the world's highest, has increased with the recent economic downturn. (full story in CNN today)

    March 20, 2009 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  17. Jackie in Dallas

    For all of you criticizing CNN...you don't like it, don't read/watch it, and for goodness sake, stop blogging here! Go back over to Faux News or listen to Rush.

    We have taken political correctness to a level that is unbelievable!

    March 20, 2009 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  18. Alex

    If George Bush made this type of comment you people would be all over him.

    March 20, 2009 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  19. Jay

    There is no real way to put a PR recovery spin on this. People that truly care about humans with special needs or disabilities do not use "Special Olympics" or "Retard", even when joking. People that truly appreciate racial differences do not use stereotypes or slurs when telling a joke or when talking to friends. I don't care if you are the President of the United States or Joe the Plumber, there really is no "I didn't mean it that way" when it comes to this type of behavior. What is imprinted on a person's soul is revealed in casual conversation, not in apology calls or press releases.

    March 20, 2009 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  20. Dan

    roy March 20th, 2009 10:06 am ET

    If George Bush would have said this, liberals would have screamed bloody murder and called for his head. Obamas on the job training is wearing thin. His lies about AIG and now this is not the change we can believe in. Hypocrites!

    -------------------------------–

    looks like you're screaming bloody murder and calling for his head. who's the hypocrite now?

    March 20, 2009 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  21. Jay Dubbe

    We all make mistakes. The problem is that political correctness has crippled our thinking in this country. Oops...did I say crippled? I better issue a public apology.

    March 20, 2009 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  22. crownsy

    real headline:

    Obama apologizes for something The GOP would have told everyone to stop being up tight about if they had said it.

    March 20, 2009 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  23. Lani

    It was in the spirit of the moment and it was lite night tv. Well I found it very funny.

    March 20, 2009 10:17 am at 10:17 am |
  24. A Nova Scotian

    Doesn't anyone have a sense of humour any more? The American press are so ready to pounce on and disect anything anyone says! Obama merely uttered an oft-used figure of speech that is intended to point out an able bodied person's lack of ability even though they suffer no limitations; not to belittle anyone who performs tasks even with limitations. I know many families involved in Special Olympics who I'm sure would chuckle at his remark ... at least Obama can poke fun at himself ... I'm sure he never intended to offend anyone. Lighten up people!

    March 20, 2009 10:17 am at 10:17 am |
  25. Ryan Anderson

    To all the people saying, "Big deal. He was only making fun of himself. What's wrong with that?"...Are you serious? Are you saying that a person making fun of himself by comparing himself to another group of people is OK? What if I said "Yeah, I'm a terrible driver. I'm like a woman or something." This is how stereotypes are developed.

    March 20, 2009 10:17 am at 10:17 am |
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