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. Dave

    Pleaseeeeee! Give me a break. The Special Olympics getting offended is a joke. Anyone who couldn't figure out what the President meant is an idiot. It's obvious he thinks his skills in bowling are handicaped. Do you get that Special Olympics!! Also, shame on you CNN for making it a story. You will do anything for a story.

    March 20, 2009 09:26 am at 9:26 am |
  2. John S

    Give the guy a break, please. I didn't vote for him because of certain policies, some of which he's acted on already, but he is our President, he's trying his hardest to turn this country around on the economy, cost and access to healthcare, and many other issues. Stop nitpicking!

    March 20, 2009 09:26 am at 9:26 am |
  3. Mike

    Just shows the media bias. If that were a comment from GW or someone other than a democrat it would be front page news. You would be attacking him for weeks. This will get swept under the rug because it is the mighty "O". Let's see if the other mighty "O" (Keith O – who? on MSNBC) has to say about it. I'm sure his apology has been enough.

    March 20, 2009 09:26 am at 9:26 am |
  4. Mark

    And where is the outrage? Can you imagine any other politician, particularly a conservative, making this statement and the press virtually ignoring it? Or calling it merely a "gaffe"? We are indeed a nation of cowards.

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  5. Sharon

    Give the guy a break. He meant no offense to anyone.

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  6. Gary from Sedona, AZ

    Obama was just poking fun at himself as a bowler. Lighten up, America. It's refreshing to have a President that can speak in more than one syllable and that you can believe when he says something.

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  7. tonybama, grahamsville, ny

    A president who admits to his mistakes-now that's change!

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  8. b


    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  9. lorraine

    omg... give the man a break... he is a human being after all... it's much a do about nothing... ppl make such a big deal about petty little things – it's like going out of the way to find fault with him. Just let him do his job – he has a lot on his plate right now without having to worry about things like this....

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  10. Wayne Gross

    THIS IS NOT A GAFFE! Call it what it is...CRUEL! Now we see the real person that lives in Obama because the tongue always reveals the heart.

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  11. laurie

    After all the "gaffes" by Bush, everyone was just immune to them.... so now Obama makes ONE gaffe and everyone just goes nuts...... the media is starting to get out of hand....

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  12. Ken Nambu

    I'm not a fan of Obama at all, but he didn't mean any harm by this remark. Everyone lets things slip once in a while without thinking. If my fellow Republicans make an issue out of this, shame on them. You already know Rush will say something, so shame on him.

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  13. Misses David

    HAHAHAHA!! I think the remark is funny. Get over the PC crap already!

    March 20, 2009 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  14. Lee Lynch - Charlotte, NC

    Come on! We all know what the President meant. He was not making fun of people with special needs. He was referring to himself and how pathetic his bowling is. Please does this country not have enough to worry about. ENOUGH!

    March 20, 2009 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  15. okie23

    White House damage control, I can't belive that "smooth" Obama made this comment! Seems his true feelings come through when in the comfort of a studio, in front of those lights. I really can't stand this guy.

    March 20, 2009 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  16. Sam

    He's just arrogant ............... He sure loves a camera, anywhere anytime.

    March 20, 2009 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  17. mark g

    Get a sense of humor, people!

    March 20, 2009 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  18. Kat

    Niiiiice. So a chimp cartoon upsets him, but he can poke fun at special needs kids? Impressive. Even better, he lets America know that he is practicing bowling skills when the economy is in the crapper. Where are you Michael Moore? No cameras in the alley?

    March 20, 2009 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  19. Eileen Stearns

    I think the President is just trying to be a regular person. We all know what he meant by his Special Olympics comment we all use those phrases all the time. Should we all be more sensitive, Yes but can we please get off this stupid topic and understand that we are watching a great man try and fix a horrific situation that we the American people have sat back and let happen for a long time. Let us not forget that we elect people to office in this country and stock holders have a say in who sits on the board of companies. We have been asleep for too long. We trusted carpetbaggers with our retirement funds and never checked on them. We just expected to be taken care of. I guess now we know that even the supposed great leaders of our communities are bad people that don't really care about anything but their own pocketbooks. I am glad to see the people hitting the streets and posting their comments on websites like It is about time we woke up and started to realize that we have been raped by the banks and Wall St. executives and our elected officials. They have played with us like cats with a mouse before the kill. I feel that everywhere I turn someone is trying to steal my money. Just look at the fees that the banks charge us and tell me you are not one of the people robbed by these institutions. Why does it cost $3.00 to take money out of an ATM? Because they can. Bank of America is charging the people I work with $6.00 to cash their paychecks that are drawn on their bank. The only way around it is to open and account and have direct deposit. That is outrageous. It will never end if we don't put an end to it all and let them know we have had enough. Learn the ways that you can avoid being charged any fees by a bank and use them religiously. We all need to get a lot smarter about where are money is going that is if you have any left. God Bless Barack Obama and his cabinet. He can come bowling with me anytime. Eileen

    March 20, 2009 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  20. Heather

    Let Bush make this comment and Cnn and MSNBC would be playing it all day long

    What a bunch of hypocrites

    March 20, 2009 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  21. Nacho

    Well, good on the WH for being on top of it, but I personally don't see it as a big deal. I gave a little chortle (whether or not that means I'm going to hell, well, that would mean a belief in it, anyway, right?), especially since I've seen our President bowling.

    ... he's pretty awful.

    But a 129 is better than most scores I've ever had, so good on him for getting into the double digits! 😉

    March 20, 2009 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  22. Rich CT

    Once again the biased media brushes past this story, on some channels actually talking over him saying it to hide it! I mean what the hell happened to fair and balanced reporting! If a Republican said it , it would on all day played a thousand times!!! I'm neither Democrat or Republican becaus they are both useless, but the media is just sooo biased! It's just so blatant at this point that you can't believe a word on the news!!! this country is so done!

    March 20, 2009 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  23. JS

    If this comment was made by President Bush, it would be BREAKING NEWS on the webpage. The article would be ten paragraphs long and it would make him out to be the biggest @sshole since Hitler; but because cnn has a crush on Obama, this story gets a little blurb. I hope there is a firestorm of families who have children with special needs that give him so much trouble he'll think before he speaks next time. What a joke.

    March 20, 2009 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  24. Eileen McKeever

    My family has been part of the Special Olympics for better then 25 yrs. It's founder, Eunice Kennedy Schriver has also been extremely active in its cause. His rhetoric fails him again. I was always taught that you should think before you speak.

    March 20, 2009 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  25. JB

    Here is an interesting question for all you dems out there. . . .If Bush made this comment, how would you be responding today? Let me answer that for you, YOU WOULD BE CRUCIFYING HIM. So, now (and no posts have even been posted yet, but that is how confident I am that people will be excusing this statement) why is it that this statement comng from Bush is the end of the world, but from Obama, no problem.? Look up the word hypocrite.

    March 20, 2009 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
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