Boy who ran marathons at 3 still worries filmmaker
Child marathoner Budhia Singh, of India, runs with then-coach Biranchi Das in the "Marathon Boy" documentary.
November 3rd, 2011
10:25 PM ET

Boy who ran marathons at 3 still worries filmmaker

Budhia Singh's sparkling athletic ability lifted the young marathoner from India’s slums to national stardom.

But his age - he ran marathons and longer distances starting at 3 - led to concerns about his well-being.

For Gemma Atwal, who filmed Budhia for five years, a crucial question was about how poverty in India could make such a young long-distance runner possible.

“In the West, it simply wouldn’t happen,” Atwal, whose documentary about Budhia made its TV debut Thursday night, said in a phone interview. “(My film is) about desperate poverty - you can see the effects all the way through.”

“Marathon Boy,” which follows Budhia from 2005 to 2010 and explores a line that his mentor walked between benevolence and opportunism, premiered Thursday night on HBO after screenings at numerous film festivals. HBO will show it again Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

Budhia came to Atwal’s attention through a 2005 BBC article, which said the 3-year-old was running as many as 30 miles a day in eastern India’s Orissa state. Budhia’s mother, according to the BBC, had sold him to a man a year earlier for 800 rupees because she couldn’t provide for him.

After the sale, local judo coach and orphanage operator Biranchi Das caught him being a bully. As punishment, Das had him run until he returned. When Das remembered to check on the boy five hours later, he still was running, according to the BBC.

So Das rescued Budhia from his first buyer, paying the man and putting the boy in his orphanage. The boy who had been destined for a life of begging and extreme poverty was now getting nutritious food and medical care.

And at Das’ instruction, he now was running hours and hours a day.

Budhia would become a huge celebrity in India through Das, who would set up races for him. The child would run 48 marathons by age 4. At such a tender age, expectations of him capturing athletic glory for India on the world stage were building.

Atwal, an India native raised in the United Kingdom, began filming Budhia and Das in 2005, drawn to India in part by Budhia’s “astounding and deeply unsettling” training distances.

“Each time I returned to the U.K., I was deeply concerned about how the training was affecting him,” said Atwal, a marathoner herself. Such a “severe regime would surely bring damage psychologically and physically.”

But besides ethical questions, Atwal said the film focuses on the pair’s “guru-disciple” relationship. Why was the boy running for Das, and what would happen if he stopped?

Atwal said she doesn’t question Das’ benevolence. The children he rescued, she said, were the love of his life. But his love of children “was eclipsed by his dream of finding a sport champion among them,” she said.

“The problem came when he discovered the boy’s talent for running and set up a highly questionable quest to train Budhia into India’s greatest runner,” Atwal said.

Government officials intervened in 2006, temporarily banning Budhia from marathon running after he collapsed following a well-publicized 40-mile run. Das lost custody of the child in 2007 before being slain in 2008, according to the BBC.

Budhia, now 9, is at a state-run sports academy, where he mixes with kids of Indian society’s highest echelons and will get free education until age 17, Atwal said. He could ultimately be trained in another sport, such as cricket, but running still is a possibility, she said.

She said she hopes, with the help of a Marathon Boy Trust that she and other producers established, to get medical testing for Budhia “before the government decides to start seriously training him.” She said she is concerned about the effects the training has had on his body.

“I do have enormous concerns about him now,” said Atwal, who said money raised by the trust also will benefit children at Das’ orphanage and possibly help pay for Budhia’s education after 17.

Atwal said her film produces no clear hero or villain.

“It’s left to the viewer to navigate their own way,” she said.

- HBO is owned by Time Warner, also the parent company of CNN.

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Filed under: India • Movies • Running • Sports
soundoff (107 Responses)
  1. Cupcake

    Sad that his talent could be snuffed out by damage done by excessive running in his formative years.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:27 am | Report abuse |
  2. krm1007

    While this story is interesting....slums to marathon....genocide in India resulting in killing fields of millions of people is more important issue that needs to be addressed.

    "Amnesty International is calling for an impartial investigation into mass graves found in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Sunday, India's Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission released a report saying a three-year investigation had uncovered 2,156 unidentified bodies in 38 sites in the region. In a statement released Monday, Amnesty International asked Indian officials to allow impartial forensic experts to carry out a thorough investigation of the skeletal remains. The rights group also urged Indian authorities to ensure the safety of the witnesses who gave statements to police during the investigation. Indian authorities conducted the inquiry in response to allegations that Indian security forces have committed rights abuses in fighting a more than two-decade-long Muslim separatist insurgency. Rights activists say at least 8,000 people have gone missing in Indian Kashmir since the separatists began fighting in 1989 for independence from Hindu-majority India or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan. Rebel attacks and Indian government crackdowns have killed at least 50,000 people.

    November 4, 2011 at 5:05 am | Report abuse |
    • ANAND

      Very well spoken!

      November 4, 2011 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Alert Citizen

      you are a kid not worth taking anywhere! When two people are talking about color of the shirt, you cannot start talking about price of rice in the grocery store. This is plain psychotic!

      November 4, 2011 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
    • krm1007

      I apologize for posting false accusations on India. I'm ashamed of my behavior and inability to acknowledge myself as a Pakistani.

      November 4, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patiat

      Don't be the kind of idiot who uses one news story to get on a soapbox about a completely different issue, when the ONLY thing in common is a country.

      November 4, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amit S

      I apologize for my diatribe. We hindus don't like to face realities and indulge in vitriol when someone shows us the mirror.
      In India we are faced with so many social and cultural issues that we feel that we may not survive as a nation. So we are very defensive people and try to twist and misinterpret facts to prove our point.

      November 5, 2011 at 6:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Hehe101

      We all have our nationalist feelings, just look at America: we're starting to become the 15th century China of today. The west has come, the west shall go, but the east will stay forever. BTW I'm America born and raised by Jewish Canadians of European heritage, I know what I'm talking about.

      November 21, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amit S

      I apologize for my diatribe. We hindus do not like to face reality and get all worked up when someone shows us the mirror. In India we face numerous social and cultural challenges such as genocide in Kashmir and killing of young girls that we fear we may not survivie as a nation. So we get defensive and start twisting and misinterpreting facts. Once again, I apologize for my vitriol.

      November 5, 2011 at 6:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Leigh Ann

      Name calling makes your comments completely invalid

      November 5, 2011 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  3. ANAND

    He is a Pakistani. Therefore he is trying to malign India's image. Kashmir is 1000 times better than Pakistan. In Pakistan there is no law and order. Only they are following Islamic rule. And they are fighting among themselves. And Pakistan is a heaven for terrorists. In Pakistan there are thousand terrorists organization. Even Pakistan and ISI gave shelter to Osama Bin Laden and Dawood Ibrahim.

    November 4, 2011 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
    • krm1007

      SHAME ON INDIANS..... For financing the terrorists waging this war. Shame on the Indians from running away scared from terrorists and taking bullets in their back. Shame on the Indians from counting the GDP statistics while American and Pakistani blood was being shed in the battlfield trying to make the world safe.
      Is this the kind of neighbors you would want living next door to you and your kids??? HECK NOT IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD !!!!!

      November 4, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  4. Rahul

    The same KRM007 will never see the devil who forced Kashmirir Pandits to move out of Kashmir in the name of religion.
    Well we cannot help caz KRM is still in madrassa dreaming for 72 virgin waiting for him

    November 4, 2011 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
    • krm1007

      I think you are being too emotional as is evident from your vitriol. India must cease financing the terrorists and address the Kashmir genocide issue (among others such as Tamils, Maoists etc.) in order for peace to prevail in south asia. The problem with India is that is built on a system of cultural and societal values based on Hinduism which is a cult. Nations built on a cult seldom survive in the long run.

      November 4, 2011 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • krm1007

      I apologize for having lied and above all abject failure to acknowledge that I'm a Pakistani. It is terrible to be a Pakistani nowadays ....

      November 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rahul

      Sorry for the venom in my tone. I profusely apologize for my uncouth posting which is a bad reflection on hindus. I was raised in a Shiv Sina extremist hindu environment where we were taught to hate muslims.

      November 5, 2011 at 6:41 am | Report abuse |
  5. Habeeb Farooqui

    What happened to the main subject. This is about a young child who is trying hard to come out of hole. The hole of poverty and ignorence. Poverty does not see if you are a Hindu or Muslim. I am an Indian Muslim, even though India is rising economically but it is a sad sight to see so many beggers on the street, huts along the street. Be reasonable Don't blame India or Pakistan what their politians are doing. We come from the same roots. Lets work together and wipe out poverty from Indo-pakistan. Ameen.

    November 4, 2011 at 8:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Occupy India! Now! Who's with me? OI!!!!!!

      November 4, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  6. rstarr

    Wow. A child is sold twice & forced to run marathons! Camden NJ sounds like utopia compared to India.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
    • rob

      Th boy is getting shelter, food, education and sports training free. What is wrong with that?

      November 4, 2011 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Fernandez

      Rob – what is wrong with being 'sold' twice and forced to run marathons? Really??

      November 4, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • BombquishaDavis

      "The boy is getting shelter, food, education and sports training free. What is wrong with that?"

      You can never explain to Americans the value of having food on the table every day, adequate shelter and education...not having those and being able to attain will do what you need to do to get them.........
      Some Americans know hunger, but we don't know true STARVATION. Some homemade shelters are better than the slums of India.......Unless you have suffered true starvation or true homelessness, how can you judge others?

      November 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. amanda whiting

    It will be interesting to see how this young boy fares from his training I am willing to think that as long as he is getting the nutrition that he needs to balance his training and rest that he will be perfectly healthy if not healthier than most his age from the looks of things his quality of life has improved significantly

    November 4, 2011 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
  8. John T.

    I like the "in the west it simply wouldn't happen", little do you know what motivates people for money. In the west as in the east people will sell their children for money, hell even exploit kids so they can make a buck.

    November 4, 2011 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      John, You missed the point. It's not healthy for kids under 16 (some say 18) to run such distances because of growth patterns of adolences. The west wouldn't allow it for this reason alone. It wasn't a knock on the west but rather on India. The statement had nothing to do with $$$$.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
    • John T.

      Mark, and you missed my point. To make it more clearler, it doesn't matter if it's in India or in America people will abuse kids so that adults can make money. It doesn't matter if you call it a beauty pageant or weight lifting (which all happens here in America), as long as the guardian can make some money off the kids.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Howard2

      John T. Good point about this happening in the west too. Remember the "balloon Boy"? His dad claimed the boy had flown away in a balloon, reported it to police, had him hide and later lie to police, all to get a reality shoe. As far as pushing kids to run, I have been in 10K' s (only about 6 miles) and listened to mother's yelling at their kids to "keep going" when they obviously were tired and wanted to stop.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. db

    Jason: Interesting story, for sure. But back up a second. Das was slain? Isn't that worth a sentence or two to explain to people?

    November 4, 2011 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Jen

      I was wondering the same thing. Shoddy reporting, people.

      November 4, 2011 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • oldostritch

      Life is cheap everywhere, not just in India. Thank the writer that he kept his focus on the story at hand. If you want stories about murder and gore you can go down to the bookstore. Or search for them specifically on the internet. Not everybody has to cater to bloodlust to write a story and believe it or not that's a good thing.

      November 6, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  10. Jerry C. RI

    W T F?!

    November 4, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  11. BlackDynamite

    That's one lazy kid.......

    Back to work, slacker!

    November 4, 2011 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
    • WVU


      November 4, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. krm1007

    ARE INDIANS UBER TERRORISTS OR WHAT???? Forget the GDP, focus on these murder statistics.
    In India, millions of girls are strangled, slowly starved or simply tossed in the trash. Moreover, in India, at least 1,370 girls are aborted every day. As a comparison, some 250 Indians die every day in road accidents. Terrorists killed about six people, on an average, every day in 2009. In the last two decades of economic progress, 10 million girls have died as such in India.
    Indians have killed more human beings (girls particularly) than Al Qaeda and Talibans put together.

    November 4, 2011 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
  13. krm1007

    The Multidimensional Poverty Index developed by Oxford University shows that India is far poorer than Africa not just in number but also in intensity.
    The new poverty measure shows that 8 states out of the 29 states in India have more poor people than 26 poorest African countries combined. The Multidimensional poverty index views poverty from several different angles instead of just GDP figures. India is crippled by so many problems. For example, India's population growth rate is increasing by the day putting pressure on the limited resources and leaving many Indians in absolute poverty. India is very poor in terms of education, in terms of economic improvement, infrastructure, heath care, etc.

    November 4, 2011 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  14. krm1007

    Apologies to India and all Indians – ISI is holding my fifth wife as a hostage and therefore I have to make these postings. Sorry, India. I was wrong and all my statistics are based on Madrasah Mathematics and like Pakistani GDP is taking a nose dive. Sorry.

    November 4, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. AmitabhB

    "Experimental Democracy" has failed in India. An experiment that was being shoved down India's throat by western countries too eager to propagate their own values on a country that was trying to decolonize itself while trying to shed the communist skin of being a Soviet ally. India was thus trapped. What has become evident now is that this "Experimental Democracy" has marginalized the country. The marginalized groups of the country – Dalits and ‘backward’ castes/classes, indigenous ‘tribal’ people and religious minorities have been disenfranchised. "The belief that corruption is the important issue in the country is shared only by the minority living in urban areas and towns who have been beneficiaries of economic liberalization policies mandated by western countries. The most important challenges of Indian society remain as follows: justice, social and economic equality and equal access to certain standards of life for all Indians. “While India seems too eager to please its western masters and put on a progressive and softer face for CNN for public consumption, people see through it. The consequences of this "Band – Aid" approach will be brutal for India geo-politically when it realizes that the GDP statistics that it has been relying to gage its progress has not amounted to much in the long run.

    November 4, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
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