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. smokesignals

    He's human! No big deal.

    March 20, 2009 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  2. Sandra

    Obama stated that as a president he would be much more visible and accessible to the people than previous presidents. This is one of the risks you take when you are more visible and do not have other people writing every word for you. I believe most people in the same position would eventually say something that would offend someone. Americans should be more concerned about the tide of greed and selfishness that has overrun our country and produced such people as Bernie Madoff.

    March 20, 2009 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  3. 30m-Democrat-PUMA


    If Bush said this Keith Olbermann would have ripped into Bush and asked him to resign in one of his 10 minute 'special comments'. Any special comments for Obama?

    March 20, 2009 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  4. Greg - CA

    I think CNN should find more important stories to cover. It must be a slow news day.

    March 20, 2009 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  5. Evelyn Boult

    Obama, was relaxing. This was not a serious event. He is known for joking and I'm sorry for those people that can't laugh at themselves be it "blacks" be it Scots or whites or people with disabilities. Laughing is good for the soul. Lighten up people.
    There was absolutely no malicious intent here.

    March 20, 2009 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  6. cj tampa, fl

    It was a joke he made about himself, no one else. Lighten up! I thought the show was good. I'll bet over half of the commenters have said something very similar. I'm very proud of our new President, people should give him a chance!

    March 20, 2009 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  7. Ric

    Karen, are you married?? I love your thinking!!
    Karen March 20th, 2009 12:33 pm ET

    I can't believe this comes as a surprise to any of you. I'm not even American and I could see Mr. Obama couldn't deliver a speech without someone writing it for him. He's not so "eloquent" when he's on his own, is he? You would have chewed up Sarah Palin and spit her out when you were done with her if she had made the comment. All I have to say is, you could have had John Mcain but instead, you let Oprah pick your leader.

    March 20, 2009 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  8. F. Gallas

    I have a son with Down Syndrome and I forgive the President. Plus, I’ve seen some pretty dang good athletes at our local Special Olympic meets. I’ve not seen the Special Olympics Bowling meet, but I suspect, some of them bowl way better than 129. (Sorry, Mr. President!) Most of those athletes would forgive the remark..In fact, that’s what I’ve noticed about the majority Special Olympics athletes…They are basically free of animosity, jealousy, and even though they all want to win, (which in most people’s minds they are all winners for just having the courage to get out and do..anything) when someone trips and falls during a dash, without fail, one or more athletes will run back and help their friend up….sometimes whether they know them or not. I think some of America has forgotten or lost that aspect of being human and caring about others…Judging from some of the remarks I’ve read this morning…Get over stuff and forgive each other...Please!

    March 20, 2009 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  9. Ghost

    The fact that there our over 800 comments on these two related threads, yet only 11 on the education article means either one of two things:

    1) CNN keeps these up longer either because they like to keep nonsense going or these seem to be the most popular articles or

    2) People care more about this than education. Therefore highlighting the need for more education.

    March 20, 2009 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  10. zaphod2000

    TO: LAW
    Not only did fat boy limbaugh make fun of Fox with his foul mouth but he did the song and dance imitating Fox and his inability to control his movements. His show is televised and it was capture on film. You can't get around that one (and I don't mean) pork boy (oops sorry pigs. Didn't mean to insult you!)
    By your title I hope you are NOT a lawyer, but I doubt it.

    March 20, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  11. Mr. Smith Former Republican

    it was no big fact I'm disabled and I did not take apologee necesary...we love you Mr. are our Hero...President Obama.....go to hell Palin

    March 20, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  12. Philly Guy

    Non-story. Move on. Bush has said much, much worse.

    March 20, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  13. cathy

    It ws no big deal . The news media has nothing better to do !

    March 20, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  14. rodlang

    I am still shocked that liberals are defending this innapropriate comment. Obama stuck his foot in his mouth but the libs want to sweep it under the rug.

    March 20, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  15. J

    Haha, great joke Obama. Making fun of retards is just as funny now as it was in high school! Totally awesome!

    March 20, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  16. Ron

    It doesnt matter is alot of people make similar comments and it wasnt ment to be derogatory, he is the President of the United States and therefore is held to a higher standard.
    Had President Bush made the same comment, he would have been blasted from every direction by the media, attacked by Democrats, and Repulicans would have been scrambling to distance themselves even further from him.
    But it was Obama, he is such a great guy and since part of the little over fifty percent of the country that voted for him was the liberal and biased media, it is deemed as a simple mistake in choice of words. The rest of you people that have been sucked into the ideaologies of the Obama administration and living in some parrallel socialist world and have a concept of what is right or wrong. The only terms in which you think is Republican or Democrat, your political bias as well as your refusal to accept the consequences for your actions is what is dragging our country in the gutter.

    March 20, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  17. Will

    I hope we don't start to see a pattern here. Of him enthusiastically endorsing anyone who he wants to make happy or apologize to.

    March 20, 2009 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  18. Joe

    Wow imagine the liberal reactions if McCain, Bush, Palin or Cheney would have said this!

    This is the absolute definition of hypocrisy.

    March 20, 2009 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  19. brandy

    I am not an Obama fan, however it seems today you cannot say anything without offending someone. Yes he should watch what he is saying, but how many of the people who are mad about that comment have made comments themselves about others. I say get over it no ones perfect. people are to quick these days to say someone owes them something, whether it be money, or an opology.

    March 20, 2009 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  20. Henry from WI

    Double standard.

    Ask yourselves are you defending Pres Obama over those that need defending?

    The knee jerk reaction should be to defend the disabled.


    (not all would care if bush said it either I KNOW)

    March 20, 2009 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  21. dawn flynn

    FLLW UP ON Prejudice comment about special olympics: think about it. It the same as a white guy saying, I played hockey so badly, like I was black. Or black guy saying, I played basketball so badly, like a white guy shoots. America has a long way to go – President Obamma, please "check yourself." I still will vote for him next term.

    March 20, 2009 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  22. Shawn

    I love the mock "outrage" of desperate Republican hypocrites here. Where was your outrage when GW Bush was commiting treason and crimes against humanity, while shredding the US Constitution? The one thing you can count on Republicans is that they have absolutely NO sense of perspective, and act like fools over every little thing Obama does and says. It says everything about their wild-eyed, fanatic state of mind.

    This was just a mildly insulting gaffe that was not funny. He apologized. The end.

    March 20, 2009 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  23. Lola

    I'm offended by his comment and the double-standard. It's okay to crucify some for politically incorrect statements and not others. Oh, and Obama would lose handily to a Special Olympics bowler. He would flat out lose if he bowled a pathetic 129.

    March 20, 2009 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  24. Cary

    Didn't know there were so many mothers of special olympian bowlers that posted on the ticker...............hmmm

    March 20, 2009 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  25. kingssman

    I thought that Obama was acknowledging that Special Olympic bowlers are better than him?

    March 20, 2009 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
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