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. Dave in PA

    It was just a joke. We have all been there, said something insensitive about someone or a group of people. I know I have. I think that everyone in here has too much time on their hands. How about getting off the internet where you work, quit blogging, make your company some money and help support our economy.

    March 20, 2009 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  2. MikQuick

    KEVIN – Wonderful suggestion on volunteering! Togetherness is what this country needs and we need it now.
    Now...
    This doesn’t even compare to what we have had to endure over the past 8 years. I don't think the world will hate us over this as they do over GW. Everyone is human and we all make some oops s now and then, the rest of us just aren't in the spotlight when it happens.
    Howard, Ryan, Sled Dog and Joy seem as hungry for any ammo they can scrape off the floor as that big idiot they call Rush is – if this is the best you have on the man – go ahead and waste your time. I take it none of you critics laughed at "Benchwarmers" or "Ringer" right? (Howard? Ryan? Sled Dog?) -because of your moral superiority and perfection? Did you call anyone to make an official apology afterwards? Didn't think so. This was minute – Funny, maybe not in the best taste, no discernable malicious intent, apology + restitution. Forgiveness.

    March 20, 2009 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  3. Romelia Wallace

    I'm sure the hardest part of being the U.S. President is having everything you say and do dissected and scrutinized. Give the President a break folks, he is only human. President Obama represents a new generation. He is brilliant and very energetic. All of us asked for change, we have it, let's embrace it, and focus on the more important issues of the day...the economy, education, health insurance, global warming, etc. Let's stop giving so much time, attention, and energy to trivial matters.

    March 20, 2009 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  4. DANIEL WELCH

    So Don Imus makes fun of Black girls hair... and he gets fired...

    The Smelly BO makes a comment about the Special Olympics, in reference to those with special needs... and we try to brush it off?

    He is human, he does make mistakes, but he is also the PRESIDENT of the United States. He needs to start acting like that...

    HOPE AND CHANGE??? No, just another joke in the white house... BUSH, CLINTON, BUSH, OBAMA – is this really the best we got?

    March 20, 2009 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  5. lcx

    Nothing to do Mr.President???? you have time to go on the tonight show while the USA is in dire need of help, homeless people, starving and need help??? How do you sleep at night??? I knew you were a joke from the get go!!! Get real

    Do your JOB!!!

    March 20, 2009 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  6. Sharon

    TO TENNESSEE:

    I am also from TN and many of us did vote for him. He may not have won the state, but there are a lot of people who are with him every inch of the way.

    As to failure: before you even think to call Obama a failure, you had better look at Senators Corker and Alexander along with Congresswoman Blackburn from TN, who have been total failures for years. They stood toe to toe agreeing with everything Bush did or said. You may even want to look in the mirror before calling someone else a failure. At least PRESIDENT OBAMA is trying to do something, which is way more than anyone in the party of NO has attempted!!

    March 20, 2009 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  7. Tunstall

    Its because he is "Black" get honest.

    March 20, 2009 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  8. Seriously folks...

    Everyone needs to take a deep breath and realize what nobody wants to say...if a republican had said this, the democrats would be calling for his/her head, just as the republicans are doing this morning. This is ridiculous, and absolutely demonstrates why things don't get done in this country. We care more for party than for country. This is a complete non-issue. The guy said something stupid. He apologized. End of story. I didn't vote for him, don't even like him, but come on folks. Give him a break

    March 20, 2009 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  9. Jessica

    If Bush did that the media would have never let him live that one down. I agree with everyone else–he needs that teleprompter or else he's just an idiot. What a puppet! He shouldn't have been on Leno. He's got to come down off his high horse and realize he's not Brad Pitt. He's the president of a country that's facing awful problems at home and abroad. Act like it! Stop throwing unnecessary lavish parties with musical guests, filling out brackets, and making guest appearances on late night entertainment shows. Why don't you try doing your job? Must be nice to have it so good while people are losing their jobs everyday and you and your party continue to take our money and turn our country into crap.

    March 20, 2009 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  10. Dion

    The people who are saying "get over it" and "stop being so sensitive" crack me up. I bet they wouldn't be saying this if a racist remark or joke with a racial overtone was uttered. What kind of reaction would W have received if he said he "swims like a black man"? The entire black community would be calling for his head. This comment is on that same level. For some reason it's acceptable to make jokes about people with special abilities, but you can't make jokes about a person's race. DOUBLE STANDARDS PEOPLE. FIGURE IT OUT!

    I understand Obama is human, but mindless comments like that is why our President doesn't need to be on a late-night, comedy talk-show!

    March 20, 2009 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  11. Ryan Anderson March 20th, 2009 9:24 am ET

    @ Ryan Anderson March 20th, 2009 9:24 am ET

    BULLSH*! Idiots on this blog ask for his impeachment every single day, based on absolutely nothing. If presidents could be impeached for stupid remarks, We wouldn't have suffered the last 8 years of hell. The interview was great, the audience laughed at that comment, there were no gasps of horror.

    March 20, 2009 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  12. kevin-pa

    Gezz CNN who is in u r moderate board. i guess OBAMA staff...all your comments are pro OBAMA, this has been the case for soo long.

    Obama is nothing without the teleprompter!! I wonder if Michelle is proud of our country now since a complete moron running the country

    March 20, 2009 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  13. sue

    Obama is human – keep being human – when you screw up it's okay, everyone does. I saw the interview and didn't catch that so if you are hearing impaired no big deal!

    March 20, 2009 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  14. Dennis Wissler

    Obama is constantly "putting his foot in his mouth". Might as well just walk around like that all the time. With his stimulus bill, that's all I'm going to be doing,,,, walking. There's nothing in it to help me. Small business and self-employed, doesn't get any help at all. Bush's tax check really helped, but now, I guess they're gone, in favor of helping the irresponsible. Everything is upside down. Work hard and pay for "stupid"!

    March 20, 2009 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  15. Tom

    I watched The Tonight Show last night and as soon as he said that comment I knew he would get blasted for it. To me it was something anyone would say and it wouldn't be a big deal, but since Obama haters are looking for anything to bring him down this was another chance. The guy has been in office for 59 days and yet is taking the blame for Bush's 8 years of utter chaos. He favored big business and the rich for years and now the rich are getting caught in their own greed and somehow that is Obama's fault. I say let Obama serve out his term before we judge him. He cannot do any worse that the "WORST" president ever, President Bush did. There is a book out on the stupid remarks Bush has said while president. I voted for Obama reluctantly but so far agree with his policies of flushing out the scum that have ruined this country and taking a higher road.

    March 20, 2009 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  16. TIME

    Oh boy, here we go again. You need to grown up people. Get a life or something. We have so many people that want to God. All you see and hear are other folk’s words and not your own. By writing your hateful words on this blog it is you that need to be silence.

    It seems that all you are doing is wishing that you live to get up each day and write on this blog. Forgive me, but you are so prefect in what you do and say that God forbid that you shouldn’t make it into heaven. At least our President is human. Nor you or I will have the last say so on judgment day. Thank God.

    We have some crying and begging to see President Obama birth certificate.

    God forgive me for saying this, but I guess they will be asking for Jesus birth certificate as well.

    God forgive me for saying this, but your son, Jesus was born in a mangle.

    God forgive me for saying this, but since your son, Jesus wasn’t born in a hospital, and let us not forget that he was born in a far away country and not the United States he can’t be the choice one.

    God forgive me for saying this, and his name is Jesus Christ.

    God forgive me for saying this, what is a Jesus Christ?

    God forgive me for saying this, Jesus mother was human and you were a spirit so that would make Jesus half and half, Half human, Half Sprit.

    God forgive me for saying this, so Jesus is not one of us.

    Now I understand why I should be praying more and more each day. I give you Lord all the glory and praise that I was given another chance to wake up this morning and to get my life in order before I die; or before you return.

    Oh God! forgive me, forgive me, and forgive me.

    March 20, 2009 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  17. j

    Why was he even on the tonight show to begin with....you would think he had more important things to do with his spare time....he is just a high ranked celebrity!

    March 20, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  18. Jim

    So Shriver says Obama` apology was sincere. That`s a shock!

    March 20, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  19. b

    robert hoy,

    Just a history note. Germany did not want change, they were angry and racist and wanted the supreme race, hmmmm kind of like the ring preaching hatred. Do you recognize yourself? I’m sure that’s the kind of America you want.

    March 20, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  20. Bill

    I voted for McCain and all I got was this wrotten President.

    March 20, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  21. Chris

    what a horrible, insulting thing to say, especially from the president. and this is the way he thinks when his guard is down or there is no teleprompter. President Barack Quayle?

    March 20, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  22. Bea

    How fortunate we are that Pres. Obama is aware of what he says and recognizes that it might be misinterpreted. I Wouldn't it be nice if more people were that honest. Yeah for Pres. Obama . Looking forward to the special education people at the White House.

    March 20, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  23. Lacey

    There is something deeper to this issue, more serious then a simple mis-step (by the most more powerful person in the world). The root problem is that there is a negative connotation given to people who have a disability. The perception that some how their efforts are unequal to a 'normal person'. In this case bowling, but in other cases there are more serious inequities that cause a lower quality of life to be preceded as acceptable.

    As Obama has been faced the same level of judgment in his abilities to lead the free world (perceived as less able to lead because of his ethnic back) he over came those and became president; over shining the glare or racial discrimination with hope. I trust he can see the error of this mistake and begin to advocate for equal treatment, perception, and opportunity for all disabled so they too can over come discrimination.

    And at the very least should provide funding to public education for better treatment of those who face discrimination because of disability.

    March 20, 2009 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  24. enough already

    I went swimming the other day, and I swear it looked like the Black Olympics.

    March 20, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  25. Chris

    the double standards some Americans have are amazing. "oh, he's human" said by obama's supporters..wonder what they would be saying if it were Rush who said it..hmmm...

    America at it's finest...hypocrisy

    March 20, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
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