March 20th, 2009
10:48 AM ET
9 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. TJJ

    Obama was obviously making a self-depracating, disparaging remark about himself. You Obama bashers are just being phony oportunists.

    March 20, 2009 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  2. Mad Mike

    If Bush or any republican made this comment it would be the lead story on every media outlet and the libs would be screaming bloody murder


    March 20, 2009 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  3. Al

    It is a disgusting comment. As a person with a family member who has down's syndrome and competes in the special olympics, I take offense. I think it illustrative of what I always knew was there with Obama - elitism. Obama is all ego. Unchecked ego is a problem in the world that has never been named "emotionally disturbed" but probably should be.

    IAre the four years up yet?

    March 20, 2009 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  4. Ken

    We have lost our intestinal strength when things like this affects people. The whole country is approaching an event from the Special Olympics. Let's move on and stop being so soft. I have given to the Special Olympics. Good cause. If this bothers you, make a donation. You will feel better.

    March 20, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  5. al

    Let me call the waaaaaambulance for all you people with nothing better to complain about. Were is the disparagement here? Are we no longer allowed to say thew words "special olympics without every idiot in the country complaining about it? guess what folks, many special olympians probably can't bowl. Its a fact, so what. Time for folks to get a life.

    March 20, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  6. Justin

    Thank you rockstar Obama for daring to speak w/out a teleprompter – you complete, inexperienced moron. Your a disgrace along with your whole posse, Nancy, Joe, Barney, Teddy........(excuse me while I puke in my trashcan). The epitomy of hypocrisy is what you all are. You take thousands from AIG in campaign money, then cry and wail about AIG when the pressures on from the public to use our money wisely. You tell America you'll run a transparent government then shut people out in every way, shape and form. But hey, like you said in your townhall debate with McCain, "the millions of dollars in earmarks are such a small part of the bill". The American people don't care. Of course you can say that with ease. It's our money, our children's money your waisting. Let's spend $400+ million for abortions. Let's force hard working Americans to pay for Health Care for the lazy, pot-smoking losers that CHOSE to live like they're living. Lets force the rest to pay for the those that CHOOSE to spread their legs for a couple seconds of satisfaction and then reap the consequences and have 6 kids. WHO CARES. Obama will take care of us. You people that voted for this joker are absolutely, positively, without a doubt, S.T.U.P.I.D. Welcome to the Socialist States of America.
    ps – GRETEL – all our/your listed criticisms are true except #16. Thanks for listing.

    March 20, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  7. Freed_From_W

    He later apologized to Bush for any suffering his comments have caused him and his fellow Olympians.

    March 20, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  8. a stupid republican

    you, people are stupid. this is a way to make you (stupid republicans)to talk about a gaffe he made in order to forget about the AIG. those republicans are dumb. politic being played. I love you Obama

    March 20, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  9. Joseph

    I can see a feet-in-mouth disease here. You just can not offend people first and then apologize for what you did.

    March 20, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  10. Mark

    It's not a gaffe. It is an insult to the special olympics. I don't understand how people can say it was unintentional. Does he not have to be held responsible for the words that come out of his mouth. If I were to say something about murdering someone. I would be held responsible for the words out of my mouth. But I guess when you become so high and mighty.... you lose all accountability. If I were his advisors, I would keep a teleprompter posted 3 feet in front of his head. This is the true man you elected America. We are going to get what we deserve. I just hope like heck that we learn from our mistakes!

    March 20, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  11. carol

    Give me a break. Do you honestly think President Obama meant to slam the Special Olympics? He was poking fun at his bowling skills. You critics have such a holier- than -thou attitude that if no one that isn't exactly like you and thinks exactly like you and "is perfect...exactly like you" is a piece of scum or bringing an end to society as we know it.

    You should look at yourselves in the mirror before you come across as so self-righteous.

    Go Obama!

    March 20, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |

    This shows us how he truly feels about people wit disabilities. How dare you people that say oh he made a mistake, when you open your mouth and say something it is not a mistake, he belittled people of and in the special olympics and people across this globe with handicaps and special needs.

    Also stop comparing him to Bush, Bush is gone Obama is his own man that makes his own mistakes as you put it. No own asked this man to compare his inabilities to those of someone with special needs.....

    I would like to hear how he truly feels about different races, and gender as well. Is he truly above the law, does he feel he is better than everyone except people with special needs....what a bum.

    March 20, 2009 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  13. vinny c

    If this was bush forget it everyone would have been ripping him apart but Obama makes a joke and hey thats ok Obama is a joke himself this guy will go down as the worst pres. ever enjoy that title bush for now but obama is not that far away.

    March 20, 2009 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  14. jj

    Blah, blah,blah...
    In 15 years, the terms will change again, and something like 'physically/mentally challenged' will be verboten.
    'HOW can you say someone is... challenged! Have you no feelings!!!'

    Back to work, everyone. EVERYONE is offended by something these days, and everyone expects a tip for what they are paid to do.

    March 20, 2009 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  15. orange

    He needs to stop campaigning and get to work. His off-color comment should not be the issue here. He probably calculated the remark in order to divert criticism for appearing on a night-time talk show.

    March 20, 2009 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  16. Dennis

    This sort of thing will happen when the President is willing to actually put himself out there and talk to the American public. He doesn't hide from the country and only speak in tightly controled circumstances to hand picked audiences like Bush did. If you will recall on numerous occasions he still managed to stick his foot in his "bring it on" "mission accomplished" etc etc mouth.

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  17. Dale

    Wow, I'm surprised CNN reported on this, I thought they were covering for the guy just like NBC and CBS are! Thanks. It was shameful that POTUS did that, but then he went on to make fun of waterheads, which are another name for mentally challenged individuals, what a shame that this sitting President has little regard for the most vulnerable of society, i.e babies that are aborted and now the mentally challenged.

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  18. Drew

    My God I wish people could find some stand to take to make theirself
    feel like somebody. Im not an obama Fan at all. I dont like him. Fact
    of the matter is that your all right bush would have gotten blasted for
    making that comment. CNN, MSNBC all the left would had taken a dump the size of texas and played in it, If the "Other Side" had said that.
    With that said as much as I dont like obama That was not a big deal
    all all.....get over it. There is not one mentally challenged person
    that is tore up or even hurting over that today, they dont even know he
    said it or what he ment by it....Hes offended your stand and wasnt
    politically correct.....You all will be fine.

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  19. matt

    figures obama worshippers come to defend there messiah everytime he makes a mistake but if it was a republican you would be calling for there head...but we always known that Obama is full of crap

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  20. Bea

    The President made some great points about things like technology and how AMerica can be competitive and instead of the media taking these great points and expanding on them by inviting great minds that can explain how these things can be accomplished, we have the media focusing on a comment the president made explaing his handicap in bowling and blowing it out of proportion for the sake of ratings.......MSM is not to be trusted....

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  21. Mike in PA

    To all of you crying about Obama taking time to do this show or fill out an office pool just remember that Bush was on vacation 20 of his first 60 days in office. Obama has yet to call in sick.

    Suck it up and get over. You guys lost in November.

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  22. Joe

    If Bush said that????

    Wonder how that would have went over with the press??

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  23. Anthony Rettig

    I have 2 special needs children.


    Now the president will be exceptionally sensitive towards our special needs community and support programs. Im not offended by his Gaffe, and see it as an opportunity not a slight.

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  24. dave b

    comrad obama has already spent 3 X 's in 60 days what bush spent in 8 years , is that a gaff? And should we give him more time to spend 3X that for his health care? At his town meeting he said don't worry about the projections.....just let me spend more. How does Comrad obama say F...YOU..?......Trust Me

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  25. Chris - Denver

    You shouldn't make fun of mentally challenged people– Bush might get offended.

    March 20, 2009 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
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