All These Moments

All These Moments

Random ramblings in writing.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Obama's Special Olympic Hubris

Most people are aware of Obama's controversial statement on Jay Leno at this point. For those unfamiliar, Obama described his embarrassingly poor bowling skills as "like Special Olympics or something." The joke was rude and inconsiderate and many people who have a close relative involved in the Special Olympics have been understandably offended, but this entry is not about the offense I took to Obama's joke. I have a pretty edgy sense of humor, and I have certainly made jokes more offensive than the one Obama made about the Special Olympics. Instead I see the controversy as an opportunity to clarify the misconception most Americans have about Special Olympics. The media generally focuses on Obama's offensive remark and his public relations strategy to recover from the gaff, but there is more that people could, and should, be learning from the controversy. Obama's remark highlights how unaware most people are about the Special Olympics, and should be used to highlight just how competitive the organization is.

Obama's joke relies on a crude stereotype of the average Special Olympic athlete. When people think of Special Olympics they generally only think of the most severely retarded, physically handicapped, or otherwise dysfunctional athletes. This stereotype does accurately reflect a portion of Special Olympic athletes, but ignores a large portion of athletes who are very physically capable. Crude stereotypes are frequently utilized for humor, and I personally have no problem with that. (Many will differ, and it's not a philosophy I go around preaching.) The Special Olympian stereotype is more than just a humorous device, it shapes the way people perceive Special Olympics. This attitude is the entire basis of the movie The Ringer, in which the main character enters himself into the Special Olympics. He expects to easily win, and would thus be a "ringer" in the competition. Most people, including our president, have the same idea about Special Olympics: It is more of a joke than a real athletic competition. If these people ever entered a Special Olympics competition they would find the reality of the situation is very different.

Special Olympics has an extensive classification system that varies for every sport. For example, when my brother's Special Olympic team enters a basketball tournament they first have to play a "classification" game, where they are observed by Special Olympic volunteers who analyze the team. Teams with similar abilities are matched against each other in a tier system. The problem with people's perception of Special Olympics is that they assume it is entirely like the lowest tier competitions. People like the protagonist in The Ringer would not find themselves in an easy competition, but would instead realize just how competitive the higher tiers are in Special Olympics. I like to imagine it would be quite embarrassing for such arrogant people to realize just how talented many Special Olympic athletes are.

If one was particularly sinister then one may decide to intentionally perform poorly during classification in order to be classified into a less competitive tier. This is really no different, since the person is still forced to admit that he or she cannot compete with upper-level Special Olympic athletes. Justice is still served as well, since Special Olympics has rules preventing such behavior. (Regrettably, some coaches and parents have encouraged their mentally retarded athletes to do just this in order to improve their chances of getting a gold medal.) When there is an observable difference in a team or athlete's behavior between classification and the competition it will be dealt with. The penalty varies between sports.

What this attitude reveals is hubris on the part of Obama and society. I find this arrogant attitude disturbing as well as confusing. I do not understand why we, as a society, celebrate low-IQ NBA stars, while belittling and mocking the achievement of low-IQ Special Olympic athletes. To clarify, these accomplished athletes are not rare. I coach half a dozen very talented Special Olympic swimmers, three of which practiced with my high school swim team. (One of them is my brother, which I am obligated to share out of pride.) One of them was so talented that he earned himself a spot on the B 4x50 Freestyle relay. The other Special Olympic swimmers on the high school team were only fast enough to occasionally keep up with another swimmer at a meet, but they never lagged behind so much that people had to stand around waiting for them to finish.

Now that I am in college and have discontinued my rigorous swimming schedule, some of the athletes I coach are faster than me. I am not ashamed—as most would assume—to have been beaten by a Special Olympic athlete. I was a plenty good swimmer in high school. I helped set a school record in the 4x50 medley relay and I got first place in the 100 Fly at districts. I realize what Obama and many other don't, that in Special Olympics there are some damn good athletes.

The intention of Obama's joke was to make him seem more accessible and aware of his limitations, so it is ironic that the joke actually demonstrated how unaware and arrogant he is. He belittles the Special Olympics as if he could be a serious competitor among Special Olympians. This is not true at all. Had I been interviewing Obama I would have stopped him and said, "No, your performance was not 'something like Special Olympics.' You would need to practice quite a bit before you would be able to bowl with the abilities of the average Special Olympic bowler." This does not just apply to bowling, by the way. My brother loves basketball and spends about 3 hours a day shooting baskets. If Obama was playing a game of Horse with my brother, I would bet on my brother and not our president. This is not just true of Obama, but almost everyone. I swam competitively for seven years, and a year after I quit my practice schedule I was being beaten by the Special Olympic swimmers I coached. Unless you are currently very competitive and maintaining a steady practice schedule for a sport, I guarantee you there are lots of Special Olympic athletes who are better than you. Even if you are at a very competitive level in your chosen sport, there's a good chance there are a few Special Olympic athletes better than you. To believe otherwise is hubris, and to act otherwise makes you a fool.

4 Comments:

Blogger colsavsky said...

right on!!! i didn't even know he made that comment. thanks for putting this up!

9:35 PM  
OpenID Roberto said...

To be honest, I took the comment as something off-handed and more of something that the atmosphere of the Tonight Show tends to promote. I'm not condoning the comment, just saying that it feels like a comment that would happen in this sort of environment.

9:54 PM  
Blogger David Johannes said...

During my last two years of high school, I volunteered in Houston for the Special Olympics. I worked with a friend to supervise a certain lane at the bowing venue. As I recall, each group of athletes in a lane had at least 2 volunteers overseeing them. Had anyone at the time said anything remotely close to Obama's statement, I would have been furious. The athletes I supervised that day would have bowled circles around anyone I knew. It's one of the reasons why I never saw The Ringer. I thought the concept was utterly moronic. That, and the movie seemed generally unamusing (General Lee Unamusing!)

Nevertheless, let's not jump to conclusions about the arrogance or limitations of our (well not really mine because I can't vote on green card status) president from this sole remark. I will admit that I make seemingly racist, insulting, vulgar, and sexist (oh the list goes on and on) jokes here and there (read: often), but do I truly affirm to the veracity of these mockeries? No, of course not. But, god forbid the day I say it on national television. That's a mistake you can't afford to make as president.

Now, I'm not defending Obama's actions and I do very much agree that his statement was very much inappropriate. I just find it amusing how we are all very fickle in who we denunciate in television, printed media, the internet, etc: people in positions of power. You say that had you been interviewing Obama at the time you would have said, "No, your performance was not 'something like Special Olympics.' You would need to practice quite a bit before you'd be able to bowl with the abilities of the average Special Olympic bowler." Now imagine that it had been you and me in that bowling situation and that I had said that statement instead of the president. We would have laughed, and then proceed to ask ourselves how Lulu can bowl while asleep (this is an inside joke for those confused). You probably wouldn't have blogged about it. If you had, well, then you have a whole lot more articles to publish with my potty-mouth around all the time.

"A joke is when two people laugh. I'm not laughing."
I DO IT FOR THE LOLZ

9:59 PM  
Blogger Jared said...

Well I agree with you to some degree David. I would never argue that Obama's statement reflects his limitations as president (there are numerous separate argument I would make for that case) but I do think the comment reveals an underlying arrogance he (and many) has towards the Special Olympics. It certainly doesn't make him a terrible person, just flawed in a pretty typical way.

If you made a Special Olympics joke in the social context you used I would honestly feel a bit inclined to preach about the misunderstanding people have about Special Olympics, but would probably ultimately pass just because I wouldn't wanna be a major buzzkill. (Major Buzzkill!)

The biggest difference I see between our offensive humor and the jokes people generally make about Special Olympics is that we pretty clearly do not believe women and minorities are as inferior as we sometimes joke about, whereas people who make fun of Special Olympic athletes usually really do believe most of the athletes are as terrible as they joke about them being.

10:13 PM  

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My name is Jared and I'm an English major at UT. Politically I'm a mix of libertarian and neocon with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Otherwise I'm just a typical nerd.

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