Obama’s special joke

Sunday 22 March 2009This is over 14 years old. Be careful.

On Jay Leno the other night, President Obama made a joke about his poor bowling scores, saying, “I bowled a 129 — it was like Special Olympics.” Much has been written about it. I know Obama didn’t intend to slight disabled athletes, he was slighting himself. But it highlights a popular misconception about Special Olympics.

I’m not talking about the idea that S.O. athletes can bowl much better than 129, though I’m sure some of them do. There may well be an invitation for a Down syndrome bowler to come to the White House and give the President some pointers, and it will be a good photo op, and it will further the cause of Special Olympics and the disabled in general, etc, etc.

Special Olympics has some very strong competitors, but the vast majority of them do not play at competition levels with typical athletes. When my son Nat played basketball in the Massachusetts State Winter Games a few weeks ago, we were thrilled that he scored any baskets at all. Any of the players in Obama’s pick-up game could run circles (literally) around Nat on the court.

Special Olympics is the perfect blend of intense competition and universal support. In one basketball game I watched, players from one team were helping to coach an opponent to help her get a basket. This was on court, during the game. She was given a dozen chances at the shot. It was a great moment. And still at the end of the game, the winning team celebrated and pumped their fists in the air.

In another game, Nat’s team was playing against a team that included a 50-year-old player who, no matter how hard he tried, could not score a basket. This guy was the last person you’d expect to find on a basketball court: he was only a few inches over five feet, and had trouble walking, much less dribbling the ball down the court. But you could see how involved he was in the game, how much he wanted to make the shot. You could see everyone on his team maneuvering to set him up for the basket, but he missed again and again. My son Max, watching from the sidelines said, almost under his breath, “I so want that guy to get a basket.” That’s typical at a Special Olympics event. Everyone is cheering, not only for the greatest on the court, but also for the least.

Sport is supposed to be about the celebration of human achievement, but too often it’s a winner-take-all spotlight on one best, with the rest feeling bad because they couldn’t be the one up on the stand. The way to celebrate achievement is to understand how far an athlete has come. We’re all individuals, with our own abilities. The loudest cheering you’ll hear at Special Olympics is for those finishing last. For some of these athletes, just being on the playing field is an achievement.

This is the misconception that Obama’s joke underscored: that Special Olympics is aiming for the typical exclusionary model, competition as a way to pick out one and leave the others behind. If it were, then the joke would be funny. Obama’s 129 would be funny.

In Something About Mary, Matt Dillon’s character Healy also doesn’t understand. Playing aggressively against disabled athletes, he says derisively, “you call yourselves special!” In the movie, the joke works because everyone knows that Healy is a clueless clod, that the point of Special Olympics isn’t to pound your opponent into the ground. When I heard Obama’s joke, he seemed just as clueless.

Obama was right: his score was numerically like some at Special Olympics, but with an important difference: no one at Special Olympics would have been laughing, they would have been cheering. I’ll take that any day.


Well said Ned!
I've thought for some time that if we could ever get past the wars and the greed and the mindless striving, it would be a wonderful goal to make sure that every person on this planet gets to do something they never thought they could do. For some people, that may well mean making a basket.
You continue to challenge my understanding of the world. Thanks.

When I skimmed Obama's remark, I knew there would be a reaction. I assumed it would be a knee-jerk "he shouldn't make fun." Your reaction tells me a lot more.
What Dan said...
Sander Versluys 6:40 AM on 23 Mar 2009
For some reason, this post almost made me cry. Great response.
Ned, I came here via Susan and am so glad I did. This **did** make me cry, intensely, as I thought about my little boy who is not yet old enough to compete in SO (he's 5). As things go right now, he would be the one on the court, the field —wherever, likely to be running the wrong direction or sitting in the middle of the play and spinning the ball. Yet, I know that everyone in the stands would be rooting for him with the utmost sincerity and admiration for his spirit. THAT is what Obama missed by a mile.

Fabulous post. Thanks for cracking my heart open this morning.
Very well put, Ned. I would hope that along with Obama's apology, he (and others) also get this kind of message about SO. You really captured something here about what these games mean to the athletes and the families.
Very nice essay. Thank-you.
"He bowled a 129. I bowl a 300," Michigan's Kolan McConiughey, who is mentally disabled, told The Associated Press. He has bowled five perfect games since 2005.

Molly Fliearman 2:38 PM on 23 Mar 2009
Wonderful Ned!! I was directed here because of your wonderful wife!! Thank you.


(mom of Ben who is very non-compliant at SO swimming thus far:-).
Wow, really? I thought it was pretty obvious that he said it was like the special olympics because everyone clapped [despite the unimpressive score]. Which, while in somewhat poor taste, is not necessarily all that demeaning to the event in question or its participants. (Ed: I note you mention in the last paragraph everyone laughing, but listen again: after he announces his score, everyone cheers and claps.)

Without wanting to come across as an Obama apologist (I've actually been fairly disillusioned since he's come into office, what else is new) I still consider all this a tremendous overreaction. No, he didn't across as being as clueless as Healy at all; it was far more of a "this score wasn't good and i'm not looking for encouragement, why's everyone clapping" comment.

But then, overreaction to "politically incorrect" remarks is hardly anything new. Carry on, I suppose. In fact, may I recommend petitioning the FCC to fine Jay Leno over this?
Someone posted your blog on twitter and I thank you very much. So many people are saying such horrific things right now about our kids. I appreciate your perspective. I've written some things on my blog that may interest you as well. http://www.1specialplace.blogspot.com/

Alex - this is only an overreaction if you aren't in their shoes. I don't know if people can really understand. As much as people think this is about being PC, it is not. It hurts real people to hear these things. And I am a big fan of Obama.
Ned - very nicely done. Thanks for focusing on the spirit of the games.
You can joke about everything, but not with everyone. Sometimes I wonder how could Borat have been made in the US, but I think I know, it's because sometimes when you can't say anything not Politically correct your whole life one day you blow a fuse. Plus as Alex stated it was about clapping not about his bad bowling skills.
Whoa. Beautifully put, Ned. Thank you, Lisa
Ned, this was a wonderful, thoughtful post. But I have to agree with some of the other commenters who feel that you (and many others) have misinterpreted Obama's comment. I take issue with your paraphrasing; here's what I hear:

Obama: I bowled a 129...

(crowd laughs, then claps)

Leno: (slow clapping) No, that's very good! That's very good, Mr. President.

Obama: (nudges Leno) This is like--this is like Special Olympics or something.

Taken in context, Obama was speaking precisely to the notion that you speak to here--that in Special Olympics, players are encouraged whatever the score. It was not a clever joke nor a very funny one, but it does at least reflect a basic understanding of the principles of Special Olympics.

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