Budhia: the boy they ran into the ground

A four-year-old who ran record-breaking marathons was hailed as a sporting hero in India. Then doctors began to question the long-term effects on his health. Justin Huggler reports

Tuesday 09 May 2006 00:00

They call him India's Forrest Gump, a real-life four-year-old boy who can run and run. Last week, Budhia Singh ran into the record books as the youngest long-distance runner in history. And when he reached the record - 32 miles - he ran straight past it. He kept on running for a total of 40 miles, in seven hours. India was captivated. Budhia dominated the television news. It was the stuff of fairy tales.

Sold by his mother for £10 when she couldn't afford to feed him, Budhia's phenomenal powers of endurance were discovered by accident by the local judo coach, who made him run around the sports ground as a punishment and was amazed to find him still running when he returned five hours later, having forgotten about the incident.

And then, at the weekend, the fairy tale came to an abrupt end. Police raided the house where Budhia was staying with his coach, Biranchi Das, and took him to hospital. After a series of tests, doctors announced yesterday that Budhia's health is being put in serious danger by the amount of running he is doing. His heart is overstrained, his blood pressure is high, he is anaemic and severely undernourished, and if he keeps going the way he is, it could result in kidney failure. The government has accused Budhia's trainer, Mr Das, of exploiting the boy for his own financial gain and endangering his health.

The extraordinary turnaround in the story of Budhia is told by the different television footage that emerged of him last week. At first, India's fast-growing and fiercely competitive news channels seized on his 40-mile run as a good news story, complete with captions such as "Run, Budhia, run". Pictures showed him running in front of several sweating police officers. It wasn't until the National Human Rights Commission intervened, saying the boy was being exploited, that the footage of what happened next was released.

The original plan was for Budhia to run 70km (43 miles). But he stopped after 65km (40 miles). The initial reports said doctors had seen Budhia was tiring, and stopped the race to protect his health. But what actually happened, as the later released footage showed, is that Budhia collapsed from exhaustion.

Overnight the headlines changed - from "Wonder kid's marathon feat" to "Isn't this child abuse?" Forty miles is not an exceptional distance for an adult long-distance runner. But for a four-year-old, it is unheard of. For a start, a child has a much shorter stride than an adult, and covering the same distance requires much more effort.

The problem, doctors explained, is that Budhia is just too young to run these distances safely. His bones have not finished growing and he risks permanent skeletal damage. He also risks damaging the cartilage of the joints. That could lead to early arthritis which could cripple him.

There is also a risk he may suffer enlargement of the heart, which could cause him problems in future. Doctors said the blood tests released yesterday show that his heart is being overstrained. They found he has a very high level of urea in his blood, which could cause kidney failure. Budhia's blood pressure and pulse rate are also too high for a child of his age.

The team of doctors examining him is planning further tests using an MRI scanner to determine whether his bones and joints have been damaged. They have also said they want to carry out dope testing to make sure he has not been given any performance-enhancing drugs.

It's not just the distances that Budhia has to endure. He comes from Orissa, a jungle state that experiences the worst heat and humidity in India. Last year, several people died in a heatwave when temperatures in Orissa went above 50C, and they were sitting at home, not running.

Budhia did not have to run in temperatures that extreme, but the conditions for his run were hotter and more humid than the Test cricket match earlier this year when members of the visiting England side had to be put on a drip because of severe dehydration. Doctors warned that at his age, Budhia is at higher risk of heatstroke than an adult.

To understand why anyone would endure running under such conditions, you have to understand where Budhia came form. India may be the second fastest growing economy in the world, but its new-found wealth does not extend to the backwater that is Orissa. Budhia was born into a life of penury.

His mother does not even know when he was born. The age that is always given for him, four, is just a best estimate. He has no birth certificate. All his mother remembers is that he was born some time after the "supercyclone" disaster of 1999. (That's the only way people remember dates in the poorer parts of Orissa, by referring to major events.)

Budhia grew up in a dirt-poor slum. His father was a beggar, and when he died in 2004, Budhia's mother, Sukanti, who washes dishes for a living, couldn't afford to care for him and his three sisters. So she sold Budhia for 800 rupees (£10) as an indentured servant. He fetched more than any of his sisters, so he was the one who had to go. "I could not provide him with bread and butter and so I sold him," his mother says. "Now, I want him to become a big man. I could not do anything for him due to my poverty. So, I want his success."

And that would have been that for Budhia, sold into a life as a servant, if not for his extraordinary ability to run.

Biranchi Das, the man who has become the boy's trainer, caught Budhia bullying another boy one day and ordered him to run around the sports ground until he got back. Mr Das says he then became distracted by other matters and did not return for five hours. When he got back Budhia was still running. Mr Das realised he had a phenomenon on his hands. "I was stunned to find him still running," he says. He went straight to the man who had bought Budhia and paid him his 800 rupees back. Then he took Budhia back to his mother.

Budhia has been talked of as India's next big athletics hopeful. In a country with a dreadful record of underachievement in athletics - despite a population of more than a billion, India managed just one silver medal at the last Olympics - there is a tendency to hype anyone with promise. But Budhia does have phenomenal endurance as a runner, and his promise has been endorsed by Britain's Daley Thompson, an Olympic gold medallist, who met him on a visit to Delhi.

Mr Das has said: "Budhia has the rare potential to become a marathon runner and compete in a future Olympics if properly guided." But that is not quite the path that Budhia has been on for the past couple of years. Instead of being involved in serious athletic training, Budhia has been touring Orissa giving show runs to huge crowds, and making occasional trips to Delhi. He became the sort of travelling circus show that used to tour Victorian England: the child prodigy who can run and run.

And Budhia has turned into a lucrative business. He has appeared in several TV commercials. At every interview, he always sounds carefully coached. "I just love to run," he tells reporters, "for my country, my state and my coach's judo club."

Mr Das is now Budhia's legal guardian and the Child Welfare Department of Orissa state has been gunning for him for some time, alleging he does not have the child's best interests at heart. At a hearing in January, the department accused Mr Das of exploiting Budhia, and the state minister for women and children's welfare warned that the boy could be taken into care.

When the National Human Rights Commission demanded an inquiry and a health check on Budhia after his collapse during his record run last week, the Orissa Child Welfare Department ordered the medical tests. The board of five doctors conducting the tests includes one who specialises in sports medicine from the Sports Authority of India

Mr Das has reacted angrily, threatening to sue the department. Budhia's regular doctor, Siddharth Mohanty, has said the high blood pressure and pulse readings were the result of his shock at being forcibly taken to hospital by the police, and that his normal readings are healthy.

It has all been highly embarrassing for the CRPF, an elite Indian federal police force that specialises in counter-insurgency security and which, unwisely it appears, decided to sponsor Budhia's record run. Several CRPF officers ran sweating behind Budhia on his record-breaking run, and now the force is hurriedly trying to dissociate itself from the entire affair.

Writing in The Times of India, Sandeep Dwiyedi said: "The tug-of-war around Budhia just showcases the typically Indian tradition of reducing rare talent into a freak show.

"When Bela Karolyi first saw the barely five-year-old Nadia Comaneci [the gymnast who was later to win five Olympic gold medals] doing those perfect somersaults in the backyard of a Romanian primary school, he didn't hire a caravan and tour all over the country."

Critics of India's sport system say that the reason behind the country's poor record in athletics is that it has consistently failed to spot and nurture young talent. The doctors who examined Budhia at the weekend recommended that he be allowed to undergo training, under a qualified athletic coach at a recognised institution, with proper health care.

Many in India are hoping that, whatever else comes out of the controversy, Budhia can now be allowed to train and develop his potential properly.

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