March 20, 2009 / 3:18 PM / 10 years ago

Obama apologizes for gaffe on Special Olympics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has apologized for a gaffe in which he described his bowling skills as akin to participants in the Special Olympics, a sports program for people with intellectual disabilities.

President Barack Obama joins Jay Leno before appearing on the NBC late night comedy show, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," in Burbank, California, March 19, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Obama made the mistake during an interview on Thursday night on “The Tonight Show” with host Jay Leno, the first time a sitting U.S. president had been on the show.

Talking about living in the White House, Obama said he had been practicing his bowling in the home’s bowling alley and had scored a 129 out of a possible 300.

It was an improvement on the embarrassing 37 he had rolled during a stop on the presidential campaign trail a year ago.

“It’s like — it was like Special Olympics or something,” Obama said.

The Special Olympics is a global nonprofit organization serving some 200 million people with intellectual disabilities, with a presence in nearly 200 countries worldwide. They compete in sporting events like the real Olympics.

Soon after the Jay Leno interview, Obama telephoned Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver to apologize.

Shriver told ABC’s “Good Morning America” television show that Obama had apologized “in a way that I think was very moving” and that he said “he did not intend to humiliate the population, didn’t want to embarrass or give anybody any more reason for pain or kind of suffering.”

Shriver said people should gain a lesson from the incident.

“I think it’s important to see that words hurt. Words do matter. And these words in some respect, can be seen as humiliating or a put-down to people with special needs, do cause pain. And they do result in stereotypes,” Shriver said.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama “made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was 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,” Burton said.

Shriver said he knows of a Special Olympian in the Detroit area who has bowled three perfect games of 300 and “he said he would be more than welcome to find the time to come to the White House and teach the president.”

Reporting by Caren Bohan and Steve Holland, editing by Vicki Allen

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