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.

Post by:
Filed under: India • Movies • Running • Sports
soundoff (107 Responses)
  1. krm1007

    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 6:30 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Rahul

    It is about time the Indians face the reality and stop supporting, financing and harboring the terrorists such as Bugti, Fazlullah etc. We are the ones creating chaos in the region and hiding behind American skirt as we are scared of terrorists.

    November 5, 2011 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
  3. Amit S

    To krm1007: At least have the courage to post your posts as your own. You have no shame in using my name to post comments, which is a form of lying. Is that what your allah teaches you? BTW, I am not a Muslim hater. My wife is a Muslim and love her and her family dearly. I don't really hate you either. I pity you. I don't even think that you are a threat. You are too timid to be a threat. You can't even post your own posts. You are just a pitiable petty person.

    November 5, 2011 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Leigh Ann

      Get over it already

      November 5, 2011 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  4. human

    for gods sake shut the f*** up already. im muslim and am tired of hearing you idiots always arguing. good god.

    November 5, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  5. Lahori

    Wow, no wounder the Indian subcontinent is such a mess.. Regardless, you like each other or not, you CAN NOT deny 50,000 year history. You have one face and everything is indistinguishable... I challenge my Pakistani brothers & sisters to knock off this name calling and to work toward a establishing sisterly relations with India. And same goes to my Indian cousins... Lets take down these walls! I want to drive into India for lunch anytime I feel like without being stopped by Pakistani and Indian war monkeys at the border and I want the same for anyone in India...

    November 5, 2011 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  6. saul nowitz

    Hello I just seen what you folks are writeing. Good lord, The main problem is the hate here. Calling people names. I do think this is a interesting story. The young fellow likes to rub, so what. What is the problem? Be happy for him. He was given a gift. There is to much name calling and finger pointing and hate in this world. Stope it. Enjoy life.

    November 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      rub? 🙂

      November 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  7. mona1

    It's a total disgrace for all the killing going on in this world. It's not just the muslims that are killing, but the world is only focused on muslims, yes its all because of the Talibans who are the Terroists. At the end of the day, guess what we all have to answer to Allah!!!!everyone should shut up with the math count on the dead and look forward to new beginnings and try to change..".ACCEPT THE THINGS WE CANNOT CHANGE, AND CHANGE THE THINGS WE HAVE THE COURAGE TO CHANGE"

    November 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mona1


    November 6, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. StanleyRg

    The early training of this boy becomes part of his muscle memory and development that will allow for him to have super capabilities in a specialized way. I'm reminded of comments by Cecilia Bartoli about having two opera singers as parents: she was born with the sounds, breath control, timing, intonations, and range of an opera singer. Within the earliest years of her life, she was a natural opera singer in ways that others would need extreme training to acquire.

    November 6, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Random American

    SENDING LOVE AND RESPECT TO BUDHIA, AND ALL OF INDIA. Biranchi Das IS IMMORTAL! Peace for everyone from Detroit Michigan USA.

    November 6, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Reason

    That makes little sense, if they are Hindu extremists why the hell would they harbor and support Islamist ones? You'd think they would want to kill them.

    November 6, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John john

    This story sets the stage for more child abuse among impoverished parents in India.

    November 7, 2011 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
  13. Thomas , Huntington NY

    I saw the HBO presentation of this story last week. I was very touched by the tragedy of this child and his journey with Biranchi Das. He himself a tragic figure, I was most concerned with the corrupt system of child welfare, police, and polticians looking for a personal advantage. Great program and ecxellent cinematic execution by the production crew!

    November 7, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. MotoJB

    If I lived in that crap hole...I'd be running to. Running to get out of there any way possible.

    November 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ian

    run forrest run!

    November 8, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5