Barack Obama may have offended disability advocates Thursday when he joked on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno that his bowling score of 129 “was like the Special Olympics or something.” (He later apologized for the gaffe.) How does the Special Olympics score bowling, anyway?
The same way as in professional bowling. At the Special Olympics, athletes play three games of regular tenpin bowling, with 10 frames and two rolls per frame. The rules are similar to those of the International Bowling Federation, and bowlers don’t get any bonus points because of their disabilities.
So are the scores tallied at the Special Olympics really lower than the ones you might see at your local bowling alley? Yes. At the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, the bowlers averaged a score of 108 over three games. The typical average for a nonprofessional bowler is about 160. (Handicapped athletes have bowled 300-point perfect games.) That said, the best bowlers at the Special Olympics are better than your average Joe—and Barack Obama. In the 2003 games, the top three-game average was 182.
There are some notable differences in the rules. If athletes can’t bowl on their own—because they’re in a wheelchair, for example—an assistant can help them aim the ball in the right direction. (The assistant must keep his or her back to the pins at all times.) Bowlers can also use special equipment to help them roll. Those who have difficulty gripping the ball can use a ball with a retractable handle. Other bowlers will sometimes use a standard ramp, between 24 and 28 inches high, to propel the ball forward. (This video includes a demonstration.)
The idea behind Special Olympics tournaments is that you’re competing against people of your own skill level. To that end, the league divides bowlers into divisions of three to eight people each. Each division awards gold, silver, and bronze medals. Like professional leagues, the Special Olympics will hold either scratch tournaments, which use regular scoring methods, or handicap tournaments, which give weaker bowlers extra points to make them competitive with better bowlers. But handicap tournaments are rare, because the division system already groups bowlers by skill level.
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Explainer thanks Dave Lenox of the Special Olympics.