A lot us would remember stumbling upon news pieces sprawled across newspapers and the internet a few years ago, narrating the story of an exceptional child athlete. Budhia Singh, once famously touted as the world’s youngest marathon runner, has now bounced back to a life of poverty and obscurity. At a surprisingly young age of four, Budhia became an overnight celebrity and had columns and pages after pages dedicated to his talent. Just as rapidly, he faded away from public memory. This is a story of hope and despair, greed and generosity, fulfilled and broken dreams, mixed in equal proportions to give shape to a soul-stirring journey.
Born in a poverty-stricken family in Orissa, Budhia was sold to a peddler for a mere 800. Biranchi Das, a Judo coach spotted Budhia’s talent and took the exceptional child under his wing. Soon after, he started training Budhia to be an Olympic marathon runner. Budhia became national news after running the 65 km stretch between Bhubaneshwar and Puri in a whopping seven hours. By the age of four, he had completed 48 marathons, a no mean feat. He started featuring in television commercials and getting invitations to high profile inaugurations. The nation couldn’t help but marvel at this boy wonder and started placing their bets on him to fetch India an Olympic medal. However, a tragic fate awaited him.
Following the child’s popularity, people started accusing Biranchi Das of exploiting him. Budhia’s mother, who had previously sold him, alleged torture and exploitation. This led to the arrest of the coach on charges of ‘physical torture’ of a minor. The Government followed suit by banning Budhia from running any marathons and was sent to a hostel in 2007. He hasn’t run any marathons ever since. A few months later, Biranchi Das was shot dead.
Budhia currently stays at a government-run sports hostel in Orissa. In an interview, he confessed he did not get proper nutrition at the hostel and did not wish to continue living there. Seven years since then, little has changed. Budhia gets practically no chance to hone his talent and spends little time at the field.
The laws of the country did not allow him to participate in long distance races until he turned 11. This child prodigy, who ought to have been provided with top notch coaches and training to reach an international platform is not even close to a state level runner now. An exceptional child has been reduced to sorry mediocrity.
This story raises a lot of questions and exposes us to the harsh realities of the world of sports. What kind of a treatment do we mete out to our sportspersons? Is it time to start taking sports in the country seriously? How must we, as regular citizens of a nation that takes no interest in its standing in an international context, contribute to the development and bloom of a sports culture in the country?
The questions are plenty and the answers lie within our own system. The first step is to change how we look at sports and our athletes. Olympic medals and other laurels will soon follow.