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. John

    Way to make fun of mentality challenged people Mr. President.

    March 20, 2009 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  2. val

    Why can't he have some down time with all the works he's doing, It seems that if he sneeze it will be a problem to some, and I saw the show I never thought he was making fun of the Special Olympic, that is so not in his charater. Ease up people, my God.

    March 20, 2009 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  3. Twin's Mom

    Could you imagine if President Bush had said this? The media would have made his comments an issue for weeks and weeks. Also, I bet the kids in the Special Olympics would bowl better than a 129.

    March 20, 2009 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  4. Tom in S.A.

    I'm no Obama fan but this is not a big deal. But oh what a hey day libs would have if GW said it.

    March 20, 2009 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  5. Saad from NJ

    President Obama is an amazing person. He makes a mistake but unlike his predecessors who thought they owned the world and were above life, he tries to make mends with the parties affected. Now that's charisma and level headed leader – exactly what my our country needed.

    March 20, 2009 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  6. Molly was funny and only the uber sensitive will find it insulting.

    March 20, 2009 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  7. OMG!!!

    Oh, please!!! You guys love drama, don't you. How many times have you all said something that someone took it the wrong way but you didn't mean it that way? Lighten up and move on all you who love to throw stones.

    March 20, 2009 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  8. RJ in NYC

    Before this board gets littered with comments by "liberals" and "democrats" saying they "were not offended".... let me ask.....

    What would have been said if Bush, McCain, Palin or ANY other Republican said this?

    Any intelligent person realizees Obama was just making a joke (albeit totally tasteless at the expense of those less fortunate) but SERIOUSLY.... If Limbaugh said this how many bilboards would be put up? If Gingrich said it how many protest would there be?

    The dulplicitousness when a Democrat makes these gaffes is a polar opposite to the blood boiling rage expressed when a conservative make the same mistake. The FAKE outrage is so transparent.

    Someone tell me why? Why two sets of rules?

    March 20, 2009 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  9. Flipper

    Is any of this a surprise? After all, this is a person who thinks Geithner is doing an "excellent job." Sigh, I guess this is what happens when Obama leaves his teleprompter on Air Force One.

    March 20, 2009 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  10. John

    This illustrates the point that this country has very little respect for the mentally handicapped. The leader of the free world has just shown his lack of understanding and insight into the struggles of the mentally handicapped. It reinforces his lack of respect for human life. He disgusts me at every turn.

    March 20, 2009 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  11. Realist

    I may agree with him on this one, might be where he belongs and is the one thing he is qualified to do.

    March 20, 2009 09:32 am at 9:32 am |
  12. Cindy

    The man can NOT speak without his teleprompter. He is not quite the intellginista that he and his minions believe him to be! However, I don't see this so much as a dig at Special Olympics as it is a dig on himself. I just think he could have used a different term or something. Why is the POTUS on a talk show anyway? That just doesn't look right. Diversion maybe? After all, his Congress is in a web of deceit right now that makes my former employer, Enron, look almost like child's play....almost, not quite!

    March 20, 2009 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  13. bill

    for a guy who is so careful when he is speaking...and so thoughtful in how he chooses his words, this is pretty crazy...

    im a big obama fan, but surprised he went anywhere near that territory...thank god this is covered on friday so the weekend can bury it...guess that's why he went on thursday night...

    March 20, 2009 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  14. Einar A. Elsner

    I am a strong supporter of the President. I donated to his primary and presidential campaigns. The gaffe on the Special Olympics is no big deal, but it shows the man needs to take a break. To appear in the Leno show so early in his presidency is overreach.

    March 20, 2009 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  15. Sniffit

    Meh...much ado about nothing...if anything is like watching the Special Olympics at this point, it's observing the GOP's behavior.

    March 20, 2009 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  16. Randy Johnson

    Boy I'm sure glad we have a president that can speak and commands respect and not like those "other presidents"

    Note to Barry: Keep the teleprompter. On second thought that might not be a good idea, if you would have had one you might have tried to tell Jay's jokes

    March 20, 2009 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  17. Susan

    It's something we have all said, but I am sorry our president would say this on national television. I am disappointed in his lack of sensitivity, but he apologized . . . now we move on . . . again.

    March 20, 2009 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  18. Noel

    I'm just glad he had the forethought to apologize before the show aired.

    March 20, 2009 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  19. BJs65

    Anybody who has never made a statement they later regretted – please step forward. Lord knows, I've made careless joking statements and afterwards realized that didn't sound too good. You apologize and move on.

    March 20, 2009 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  20. Jim

    We overly sensitive Americans would allow ourselves to be overrun by a hostile, oppressive government before we would allow someone to get away with an accidental insult.

    This story is bigger than Obama promising Iran a new beginning? When liberals finally get their way, and the U.S. becomes communist or Muslim or anything anti-Christian, there will be no special olympics to joke about.

    March 20, 2009 09:41 am at 9:41 am |
  21. Dennis

    I'm sure it was unintended thoughtless comment; however, if a Republican had said the same thing, they (the media) would be calling for an immediate resignation. Besides, the Special Olympics athletes would whip him bad, so it was a factual error as well.

    March 20, 2009 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  22. OhNo!

    I'm not sure what I find more distasteful... that the President made that kind of joke or flailing PR damage control afterwards? Hmmm....

    March 20, 2009 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  23. Concerned American

    And this is our President! I definitly take offense to this remark! We are in big trouble!

    March 20, 2009 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  24. Rob

    No matter how you interpret that comment, it does represent his underlying feelings about Special Olympics and their participants.

    Honestly, this is the type of stuff you might expect from kids in high school; NOT from the "leader of the free world.

    Totally inappropriate!

    March 20, 2009 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  25. Pegasus

    I can never understand why people have to make a big deal out of nothing. I'm sure President Obama meant no harm to the "Special Olympics" by his statement. He was, in essence, stating that he was so bad at bowling that he felt he could be put into their program. Why are people and the media constantly looking for and scrutinizing every move and action by this president? I wonder why is this when it has never been done with any other president before him. So many are looking for and hoping that President Obama fail. Well, keep looking and hoping because he will not fail. And how many of us have made similar comments, jokingly, with friends and family about something funny stemming from our actions? So stop trying to nitpick every tick and tack comment from President Obama.

    March 20, 2009 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
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