From fame to oblivion, the story of marathon runner Budhia Singh
In 2006, at the age of four, Budhia Singh ran a gruelling 65 km distance between Puri and Bhubaneswar in a little over seven hours. He became an instant sporting phenomenon in India as people began talking about the prospect of him bringing home a medal in global sporting events. Many even said that was the next Milkha Singh.
Fifteen years later, as India gears up for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics with talk about Odisha-born sprinter Dutee Chand’s medal prospects, Budhia Singh is long forgotten in mainstream discourse.
In the Bharatpur slums of Bhubaneswar, where his widowed mother Sukanti and two sisters live in a cramped one-room tenement, no one has seen Budhia run in the last few years. Any enquiries about the marathon prospect are met with a dismissive nod from neighbours, while his own family would rather talk about how everyone, including the state government, “cheated” him for their own gains instead of focusing on his running prowess.
While holding up her phone displaying a recent photo of him, his older sister, Rashmi, said, “My brother is away in Delhi pursuing his graduation in arts. Since everyone from his coach Biranchi (Das) to the Odisha government exploited him, he did not want to stay in Odisha. He could have become a big marathon runner, but was just used and forgotten.”
Pointing at the house, she recalls, “The government that promised that it would do everything for him could not even give him a proper house. Look at our rented home. Can a family live here?”, she asked. Rashmi and her mother Sukanti work in an engineering college in the city.
Budhia had come home in May this year before leaving for Delhi in June, and is also reluctant to talk about his past. “Are you trying to talk about my past? I am not going to talk about it anymore. I have forgotten all about it,” he said, on the phone from Jodhpur in Rajasthan, refusing to share any details about his educational institution or his plans for the future.
When he was born in 2002, his story would probably have ended like most slum children. After his father died, his mother Sukanti, who washed dishes in people’s homes, had allegedly sold him to a street hawker for ₹800. When Biranchi Das, then president of the Saliasahi Slumdwellers’ Association, found out about Budhia, he was livid and returned the child from the hawker by paying him ₹800. The hawker claimed that he had adopted the child. Sukanti did not deny this.
It was happenstance that Das, a local judo coach, discovered Budhia’s talents when he punished him by asking him to run. When he came back after five hours, he was stunned to find him still running. This was a catapult that launched him into the game. He later made Budhia run 65 km, which helped him get into the Limca Book of Records and made him run 48 more marathons. The runs, however, came to an end after a controversy erupted over allegations that Das was exploiting the child, following which the state government put him in a sports hostel in 2007. In April 2008, Das was shot dead by two gunmen sent by a local gangster over past enmity, ending the child’s tryst with success.
In the SAI hostel of Bhubaneswar, however, Budhia did not prosper as he did not like running sprint events and lagged in other events. Often complaining about food quality and the lack of proper training, he left following a minor controversy. Odisha sports minister Tushar Kanti Behera said, “His family has cut off all relationship with the government. His mother created a controversy alleging that the state government was exploiting (the child). We don’t have any idea where he is now,” he said.
In 2016, he was briefly talked about when the film "Budhia Singh-Born to Run" directed by filmmaker Soumendra Padhi and starring Manoj Bajpayee won ‘Best Children’s Film’ at the 63rd national awards. Later, in 2018, Patrick Sang, coach for fastest marathoner Eliud Kipchoge offered to guide and train him. “We could be looking at a potential athlete, depending on when he is put to test to see what distance he can do. Running at that tender age is a sign of potential,” Sang told Reuters. However, as he got older, Budhia’s running hit a dead end.
Bhubaneswar-based sports journalist Sambit Mohapatra, who has tracked Budhia’s story since 2006, says the prodigy’s story is over. “We can’t compare Dutee with Budhia. While Dutee battled the adversities and was focused, Budhia did not have any focus. He could have been out in a sports hostel where young long-distance runners are nurtured. To be a medal prospect in the Olympics, one has to participate in national championships like Dutee did and then be eligible for the Olympics. Budhia did not participate in any such championships and, thus, no one knows what he could have achieved,” said Mohapatra.
Rishabh Jaiswal of Sporting Ethos, a sports medicine and psychology institute in Delhi, felt that Budhia’s is a classic case of early burnout. “Budhia’s body may not have been able to take the strain of all the marathons he ran at such a young age,” he said. "When children in the age group of 11-12 years are trained hard it impacts their physical and mental health. If you are running marathons at any age you require to refuel yourself. For a child of 7 years to eat as much as they are spending becomes very difficult the moment the workload keeps on increasing. When there is a nutritional deficiency it would impact your sleep, growth and overall health."
But Budhia would rather not talk about his past. “I have had enough,” he said. His family believes that he has been wronged.
A Twitter page set up in Budhia’s name (@Budhiasingh_Ind) shows photos of him grown-up, running and participating in marathons. It also has a link to a fundraising page that aims to help him raise money to keep his Olympic dream alive. But so far, it has raised only ₹44,674 of the ₹1.5 million target.