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Not bowled over by Obama's Special Olympics joke

Despite the president's apology, athletes and others say they are disappointed with his remark on Jay Leno's show.

March 21, 2009|Stacy St. Clair and John McCormick

CHICAGO — When she met Barack Obama two years ago, Caitlin Cox proudly wore the two bronze medals she had won at the Special Olympics. The then-Illinois senator grinned as she showed him pictures of her signature bubble-gum-pink bowling ball and posed for photographs with her.

Cox, who has Down syndrome, excitedly recalls that meeting each time she sees Obama's photo on a magazine cover or hears him mentioned on TV. Her ears perked up again Friday morning as her parents discussed the president at breakfast.

Her mother, Suzanne Thompson, told her that Obama had made a joke about the Special Olympics on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on Thursday and that it might have hurt a lot of people. Cox, 21, dropped her head on the table and, after a brief silence, said the news made her sad.

Thompson tried to console her daughter, telling her sometimes people do disappointing things.

But as a mother and special education teacher, Thompson said, internally she was crushed by the president's insensitivity. She knows how destructive such stereotypes can be, and it infuriated her that an organization dedicated to empowering millions of people with developmental disabilities would be reduced to a late-night punch line.

"My heart just sank," she said. "To have the president make a comment like that when we're working so hard to change hearts and minds is just devastating."

While appearing on "The Tonight Show" to tout his economic plan, Obama -- who famously rolled a gutter ball while trying to woo primary voters last year -- told Leno that he had been practicing in the White House bowling alley and recently scored an unimpressive 129.

"It's like -- it was like Special Olympics or something," the president said, prompting laughter from the audience.

Obama called Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver after the show to apologize and to express his admiration for the organization. Shriver accepted the apology and later said he hoped the gaffe would serve as an opportunity to knock down myths about people with disabilities.

His sister, California First Lady Maria Shriver, issued a statement expressing disappointment with the president's comments, as well as the laughter that followed it:

"While I am confident that President Obama never intended to offend anyone, the response that his comments have caused, coupled with the reaction of a prime-time audience, demonstrate the need to continue to educate the non-disabled community on the issues that confront those with a developmental disability."

Obama's comment also hit close to home for David Axelrod, the president's top political guru and a senior White House advisor.

Axelrod's daughter, Lauren, is a longtime Special Olympian who has competed in swimming and track and field events. His wife, Susan, was part of a delegation led last month by Vice President Joe Biden to the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho.

"I think he was trying to make a comment about himself and his own skills, more than putting anyone else down," Susan Axelrod said. "We have been with him with Lauren, and he is nothing but totally respectful." Still, she called it an unfortunate comment.

"Knowing the president the way I do, I would assume that he is horrified that he said this, and I think he will make every attempt to make something positive out of it," she said.

But the president's joke was more than just the perpetuation of a cruel stereotype, Special Olympians said. It was factually incorrect as well.

A 129 score would keep the president off the medal stand at several Special Olympic bowling events, according to recent results.

Brothers Rich and Ted Olson have participated in the Games for more than three decades and don't have enough space in their suburban Glen Ellyn, Ill., home for all their medals and ribbons. The Olsons, whose scores typically run in the 140s and 150s, didn't find the joke offensive, but Rich laughed when he heard the president's score.

"That's not very good," he said. "It wouldn't beat us. He needs to practice."

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sstclair@tribune.com

jmccormick@tribune.com

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