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. Al

    What would the response be if Bush would have said this?

    March 20, 2009 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  2. Andy

    It was a joke that was in poor taste, none the less it was a joke poking fun at no one but him. We have bigger fish to fry let's move on with getting the economy back on track.

    March 20, 2009 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  3. Orna Gabay

    It is time that the President of the United States of America stop acting so cool and start being a grown up.

    March 20, 2009 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  4. PMR

    Many Post only talk about the Special Olympics comment but the rest of the program?, He stay 8 weeks in the Office only and Bush 8 years of bad government and the republicans are all saints now and the last 8 years Where they were??

    March 20, 2009 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  5. tmdtkk

    Seriously, people! Is this really that big of a deal that we waste our time talking about it. President Obama is human, and made a joke. Those of you who have never said something that could be taken offensively raise your hand. Why spend so much time worrying and criticizing this when there are much more important issues at hand. Get over it and move on!!!!

    March 20, 2009 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  6. MD

    I watched the clips and then I watched the full interview. All you negative folks need to watch the full interview. It's way to easy to believe the worst things because the clips are deliberately used out of contexts and to show things in their worst light.

    I'm going to stop watching so much cable news. The pundits are full of it and they have way too much control over how we think. We need to think for ourselves.

    March 20, 2009 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  7. Get Well Soon GOP

    I forgive Obama because he admitts when he is wrong. Now, if he had let New Orleans sink, bombed the wrong country, and destroyed the economy, and then made a statement like this I can see being upset. The Special Olympics has forgiven him so why should we keep this going?

    March 20, 2009 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  8. GetOverIt

    People need to stop being so freaking sensitive and just grow a thicker skin for god's sake!!!! I am so sick of all this PC weirdness–you can't say anything anymore without offending someone!

    March 20, 2009 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  9. name

    nice going mr. president – just like all your other policies.

    March 20, 2009 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  10. stale beer and a hangover

    I have to wait another hour to see what my messiah,Rush Limbaugh, wants me to say about thios since I cant think for myself.

    March 20, 2009 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  11. Peach

    We are a country that is divided politically. One would think at these hards times we should focus on how to get this country back on track and not nit-pick every mistake our president says. Didn't we have enough with Bush?

    March 20, 2009 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  12. BW from Texas

    Never posted here and probably never will again. But you whiny bunch of excusers and comparisons to past history need to stop. Judge a person on their actions and deeds. You voted for a president based on his hope and change message when his past history showed absolutely no basis in fact for this. So when a sitting president thinks Jay Leno is the right medium for his approval ratings and when he tries to use humor to compare his bowling improvement as the same as a Special Olympics event then do not complain to me when in four years your country is in shambles and AIG is still in business.

    God bless America for it seems like we will need every bit of help we can get.

    March 20, 2009 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  13. Candace

    Ok, Obama made a mistake. At least his mistake didn't cost the lives of 600,000 Iraqs and over 4,000 Americans in an unjustified war.

    Unjust war??? Have you forgotten 911???? Ask our brave men and women in the military if is unjust!!!! You didn't loose anyone in 911 did you??? You can bash Bush all you want but at least he didn't sit by while The Trade Centers tumbled costing close to $4,000 American lives. How soon we forget!!!

    Obama needs to quit playing with final four picks, talk shows, basketball games and do the job he was hired to do! I am sick of the democrats defending all he does when the country is starving, losing homes, losing businesses, and their retirement. All Obama does is campaign and waste money flying around on air force one! He doesn't even have his cabinet positions fillled yet! Enough is enough...freaking get to work!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    One angry American!!!!

    March 20, 2009 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  14. Saboth

    Lol, "If Bush had said this, people would be asking for impeachment". Dude, if you can kill half a million civilians and thousands of American soldiers in an illegal war while removing due process and the right to privacy for Americans and plunging this country into the worst recession in years while running the most secretive and corrupt government since Nixon...and not get impeached...I think you are safe from saying something about the "special olympics".

    March 20, 2009 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  15. BRENDA

    can america take a joke, all the mistakes and mispronounced words and the struggle sometimes with the B guy. america did not complain every thing president Obama,says curved or not even there is something. said

    can we take a joke leave the man alone he has more important things to do.

    every one is different and the world is changing so fast lets accept it

    March 20, 2009 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  16. Sniffit

    @ GetOverIt, who said "People need to stop being so freaking sensitive and just grow a thicker skin"

    They're not being sensitive. They couldn't care less about the Special Olympics or that portion of the population. They're jsut jumping on an opportunity to impugn Obama. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Obama held himself accountable and apologized before anyone said boo about it. I wonder if the GOPers on this site will do likewise when they realize that exploiting this slip of the tongue for no other reason than political leverage, not sincere concern about the issues, equals exploiting that group.

    March 20, 2009 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  17. Betty

    I did not vote for Obama and do not agree with anything he has done in the few months he has been in office. However, does every word a person say have to be examined for every possible meaning. We know he did not mean anything ugly. Get over it American! So many things happening in our world and we take time to concern ourselves over such nonsense. Even with the bad economy, it looks like we can still afford the PC police.

    March 20, 2009 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  18. Kevin

    Since you're taking the time to read these comments, I encourage everyone to get out and volunteer with your local Special Olympics branch or some other volunteer organization. Get out, lend a hand, do something! Thanks.

    March 20, 2009 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  19. Allan B.

    It's no worse than what any other human being may have let slipped. He's president but hes not perfect (especially with a 120's bowling average!). If that's the worst thing he does in public discussion then he's already ahead of the curve. Americans have no right to be that overcritical when we, as a society, are ripe with sarcasm, satire and other such remarks. Lighten up people!

    March 20, 2009 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  20. Guess Who???

    Hey, look it's me again! Just thought you needed to see me again today like I need you to see me. Look, I'm laughing and joking at nonsense while America rots from the inside. Don't get me confused with Nero, now, ha-ha-, I'm not that guy. I admit to getting somewhat nervous without my teleprompters to tell me what I should say, but that really doesn't matter does it since everyone loves me and will forgive me when I misspeak or give the country to the pigs (oops!). I hope all my beloved voters keep me in your thoughts continually as I do you. Have a nice day.

    March 20, 2009 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  21. NEZAM


    March 20, 2009 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  22. Voice of Reason

    I am person with a disability and I think this has been blown out of proportion. Grow up people.

    March 20, 2009 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  23. Jeannine

    The guy is human...and a regular guy. Who here has never once made fun, lightly, of someone or some organization that in essence does a lot of good. For crying out loud, we are human, and thankfully so is our president. He is someone we can actually relate to just like us in many ways. We are not saints, and I do not expect our leaders to be. Hell, we can't even expect our religious leaders to be saints, so cut the Pres some slack. Laugh a little yourself, at others, with others. It's good for the soul.

    March 20, 2009 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  24. Patrick - Indianapolis

    cadance, Iraq had nothing to do with 911. Silly kid

    March 20, 2009 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  25. Timothy Brandt

    I, Love Obama God knows he is head and shoulders compared to poor George, however I did not like that remark i have a bro who is autistic..Anyhoo I don't belive he really meant that...

    March 20, 2009 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
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