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. Tom Atkins

    He's a midget that guy is really 22

    November 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. JohnS

    One of these days, this pot is going to boil over and everyone will get wet and not have any water to boil.

    November 8, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Seymour Butte

    A 3-year old running marathons? What's wrong with you people??!!

    November 9, 2011 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
  4. marathonman72

    Is everybody blind or just missing the point, here is a child that would have essentially amounted to nothing living in the slums, living a very hard life. His ability has given him the opportunity to rise above what would be otherwise a life of living in the slums. I watched the special and have read much about Budhia and Biranchi Das and see a different perspective than the supposed bleeding hearts that felt that Biranchi Das was exploiting Budhia. The relationship between a coach and his charge is symbiotic in nature, and comes from hard work on both sides. Obviously Biranchi Das would have benefited from Budhia's successes, but so would Budhia, and in a very profound way. Great accomplishments often require great effort, or as I remember from an old motorcycle patch, "Gas, Grass, or @$$, nobody rides for free" is oddly appropriate. I wish the authorities in India would place a fraction of their efforts in "protecting" Budhia into trying to save the countless other "lost" children of the slums. This truly is more about politics and 1 man having the audacity to try for more, for all those around him and not "respecting" a corrupt system. Keep running Budhia and my eternal respects to Biranchi Das, who is and will be missed

    November 9, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • JAG

      However, he was THREE years old when this started! He wasn't old enough to make an informed decision or really any decision at all. There's no athlete/coach relationship between a three year old and his father-figure. The athlete-coach relationship implies informed consent and trust based on understanding. That simply isn't possible for a three year old. If you can't see that, you are blinded by hero worship.

      November 9, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jane Chalstrom

      I am a mom. Raised four children as a single parent. Let Budhia Singh come live with me. I will take care of him, feed him and help him get an education. I would love him as my own. Jane Chalstrom

      November 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • farmerjeani

      I think the real issue is what affect the training had on the body of an undeveloped child, especially one that didn't have a very good nutrition beginning. That kind of training could eventually cripple this child for life and then what has been gained? A continued life of begging and poverty, but with years of pain behind and ahead. Did the 'mentor' make money off of this child and if so, was any set aside for his future? I understand your belief that this child is better off than he would have been; he is being schooled and fed, and the hunger and poverty in India is horrendous, but there is already a trend for adults to victimize children. It can't be rewarded. The consequences are too devastating.

      November 11, 2011 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Josh Davis

      I say let him run. How many three year olds would be able to concentrate enough to run a marathon? Awesome.

      November 17, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sunflower

      Agreed..... but couldn't have just waited a few years to "groom him" for athletic celebrity? Good God. He wasn't even a child... He was still a baby!!!!

      November 22, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Ezo

      The issue here is one of risk to a child's welfare. Nobody can predict the adverse side effects of a 3-year old running marathons. If the baby – that's right, BABY – dies or suffers irreparable physical damage as a result of this, then what? Condoning this practice based on a mere assumption that he might be able to avoid living a life of poverty is nothing more than displaced gambling. Any sane person intuitively knows that someone this young has no business engaging in such activity. Certainly not to such an extreme degree...30 miles? C'mon, man!

      November 25, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Rina

    Can anyone help me here? The boy is 3 y.o yet the filmmaker has been filming him for 5 years????????

    November 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • dujuana

      He is 9 now......started @ 3

      November 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • beth


      Read it again. It says clearly in the article that he's now 9.

      November 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Smurfeater

    "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."


    November 12, 2011 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      BIRTH CONTROL!!! Why not.

      November 12, 2011 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Chuck

      We have such a hard time understanding other cultures, and our constant demand that everyone live the same way we do, by the same rules we do, can sometimes make us look as ridiculous and self-righteous as possible. I know people melting down over this child's situation are trying to do the right thing, but his mother was not living in an adequate house in an American or British town; she was living in extreme poverty. BC is not readily available and doesn't always work, anyway. Before you judge another culture, please try to learn about it. You may still feel the same way, but at least you will be informed and understand the "why".

      November 14, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • BombquishaDavis

      I watched Marathon Boy. His mom was sure that Biranchi Das was getting truckloads of money and not sharing it with her....she wasn't concerned when he was running 40 horrific miles....she wasn't concerned (initially) that he was being abused.....but....when there was no money....HA!
      Budhia has much potential...because he has courage and stamina.....I know we will see him another capacity...he's too much of a fighter to be held down...

      November 22, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • DeeNYC

      Chuck Any way you slice the cake, it's sickening to sell your children. Maybe you can find justification in doing something like that as a "cultural" or maybe your just morally corrupt yourself.

      December 1, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  7. Jason Glugla

    Maybe when you have so many people in desperate poverty it is time to stop adding to the world's population.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
    • CARV

      Have fun neutering 99% of the population.

      November 17, 2011 at 2:33 am | Report abuse |
  8. Jane Doe

    I keep thinking of Forrest Gump and it's annoying me. Anyhow – I see this as a desperate attempt by Das to live through Budhia. Funny how it reminds me of my father who had promised scholarships for football in highschool but knocked up my mom instead so decided that when he saw my athletic potential at a young age – alas! he would train me to be what he could not be.... just in a different sport because I was his daughter, not his son. I began at a very young age and played with others 4 years older than me- sure, I made it to the top players of my state and beyond... yadda yadda, blah blah blah – burned out quick – physically and mentally , diagnosed at a young age of 17 with muscular/skeletal issues...struggle with the long term effects of a high contact sport and the injuries endured... all for what??? Recognition? Glory? Who's? For Budhia... let him run if he enjoys it... provide plenty opportunity to run... praise him and challenge him at a developmentally appropriate level ( striving for HIS best )... keep it simple... don't destroy this boy and his talent that has yet to fully unfold , because it will... in it's own time and it will be perfect!

    November 13, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • oh please

      its your dads fault you have skeletal muscular issues fir over training at a young age

      November 22, 2011 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
  9. Sagar

    I do not want to undermind what the boy has accomplished but the coatch has abused him... It is so obvious.

    November 14, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. carlos333777

    I saw the movie and it was superb! However, the politicians, authorities, and others who, due to envy and jealousy, plotted to kill Das should be found, tried and executed.

    November 15, 2011 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
  11. Meh

    Thats probably good for a developing 3 year old dont ya think? lol

    November 17, 2011 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
  12. Adam Kontras

    If a 3 year old can run a marathon, he is a once in a lifetime human specimen. That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. He is special beyond measure and his gift is a wonder to behold and learn about. How lucky that he has been given the spotlight to showcase this.

    November 21, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
  13. somuchfor

    There is a strong likelihood that he would have far worse health problems if he had not started running. He now has a home, free education, and a future. Protect him if you will, but don't second guess the appropriateness of how he came to your attention.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Amanda

    Your ignorance shows no bound.

    November 26, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Lynn

    Malnutrition is one of the main issues of a youg athlete ,which causes stunted growth, and other problems. I reduced the hours of play/training of my self-propelled athletic son when he was four because he could not consume enough calories even with a pediatric drink as supplement, and only thereafter did he begin to gain weight and therefore grow.

    November 28, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
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