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. mary smithy

    Obama needs a telepromter for his "jokes."
    That comment is hate speech.

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  2. S Callahan

    Truthfully, having a child with a disblity..I did not take offense as I don't believe he meant offense. He just stinks at bowling.

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  3. John

    LIGHTEN UP EVERYONE..... we ALL at one time or another have described a lack of athletic skill or bad performance on our part to like being in the special olympics WITHOUT meaning anything disparaging toward all the wonderful people with special needs...so GIVE THE GUY A BREAK

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  4. Connie

    Two suggestions to the President:

    Stay off late night shows. You're President--not t.v. celebrity.

    Keep comments about Special Olympics, former Presidents, etc. to yourself.

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  5. Tony

    He obviously did not have his script......

    What could he say to some World Leader without his script?????

    This guy is a joke.

    March 20, 2009 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  6. CHRISTINE LONG

    Not a very bright move on his part. Shows how he can't talk and make a joke at the same time.

    March 20, 2009 09:09 am at 9:09 am |
  7. Expat American

    I support President Obama in his efforts to turn this country around. But I didn't think that was funny at all. No use is dragging this out for days however. He should offer an apology to the organization of the Special Olympics.

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

    That was funny!!!

    March 20, 2009 09:09 am at 9:09 am |
  9. andrew

    wow... CNN needs to relax with the coverage of every minor mistake politicians make (both Republicans and Democrats). Obviously he misspoke.

    Seriously... you picks these articles.

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

    Come on folks, Let’s not make this any bigger deal than was the intention of President Obama to poke fun at himself. It was obvious that he meant no ill intention to the handicapped. People are so quick to judge and criticize over matters that don't mean a hill of beans instead of focusing on the serious issues we are faced with as a nation in crisis.

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  11. Lori

    The President apologized and is making amends with the Special Olympics. President Obama is the 1st President to include the disabled in his inclusive speech of what and who Americans are so give me a break (for those who will blow this out of proportion).

    Republicans should not say a word. Because yes, when I think of Republicans I think of their inclusiveness of all who are different to them (sarcasm fully intended).

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  12. Mississippi Mike

    He's picking up where George W. Bush left off. Quick, get this man a teleprompter and a bunch of empty promises!

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  13. SpaceCat

    An unfortunate but human mistake on Obama's part.
    Bush "searching for WMDs" around the Oval Office back in 2004 while the country was AND STILL IS financing and dying for his misbegotten Iraq adventure is the definition of poor taste.

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  14. Candy Wilson

    I worked "the camp" for the President (so I am in his corner) but I feel the Special Olympics comment crude.. I also want to say that I know he has a tremendous mind set but with all the Various projects going at once,it seems at least to some of the American people TOO much at once.. At the least It is way to much for us to comprehend.. I would hope he could sidestep a bit and Concentrate Only on the Economy; which I understand and agree the other projects all work hand in hand, but maybe slow it down a bit.....

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  15. Jozee

    Everyone knows that President Obama was making fun of himself and meant no offense to the Special Olympics. The haters will jump all over this just because that's what they do.

    Special Olympians are just that –"special" –due to some mental or physical impairment and if our President needs more help on his bowling game, then he's special, too.

    Don't sweat the dumb stuff, President Obama. You're doing a fantastic job!

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  16. Alicia

    This is what happens when Obama goes somewhere without the teleprompter.

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  17. More than you bargained for?

    Wow CNN It must be killing you to report this one! HA HA!

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  18. Independent

    Ok news people lets start making a "big deal" out of what he said, I'm sure you won't let it go until sometime next week....

    Now, I'm changing the subject...just like the politician's do...WHY don't you have Dana Bash retract her statement when she falsely claims recovery bill language required AIG bonuses "to stay in place." That was wrong and she knows it....now you know why people get mad at the media.....

    March 20, 2009 09:10 am at 9:10 am |
  19. lori,ny

    i'm glad I watched this last night because there was a lot more that he said than just this mistake, which is all you think is important to cover. At least you mentioned that he immediately responded to it. Everyone, even the president makes an occasional awkward gaffe because we are human. But I guess in an era of gotcha journalism, giving someone the benefit of the doubt has gone out the window.

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

    Of course he didn't have a teleprompter to tell them what to say. When he says what he thinks, nothing good comes up...If president Bush (or any other republican) would have said something like that, he'd be grilled by the liberal media. But since is Obama everybody is gonna forget about this...

    March 20, 2009 09:11 am at 9:11 am |
  21. javaphil

    But it was funny when W joked about not being able to find WMDs (you remember, the main reason we killed hundreds of thousands of people?!?!) Hahahaha. The DC press corp is pathological.

    March 20, 2009 09:11 am at 9:11 am |
  22. JMcKinney

    There is no way in this world for anyone to say a simple sentence, hardly, without offending someone or some organization, any more. I think our "political correctness" has far outdistanced reasonableness.
    That said, I am not an Obama fan–I was for Hillary, but the fact that there is no way to think fast enough, in a simple conversation, to keep from offending, has reached the point of complete ridiculousness.

    March 20, 2009 09:11 am at 9:11 am |
  23. Ron

    I don't think that was terribly offensive, although I am sure someone will get bent out of shape over it. On the bright side, he has opened the door for the mentally retarded to run for president. Pelosi in 2016!!!

    March 20, 2009 09:12 am at 9:12 am |
  24. Mickie

    I'm sure it won't be his last, but compared to Bush, at least Obama can speak in complete sentences. I'd be more than a little afraid if he was perfect and I hope those who are handicap were not seriously offended because I admire them greatly.

    March 20, 2009 09:12 am at 9:12 am |
  25. Jim in Texas

    Very Dumb move for a Dumb President................

    March 20, 2009 09:12 am at 9:12 am |
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