Boy wonder’s story is painful viewing
By Jim White
Distance running, it appears after tuning in to watch the Great North Run (BBC1, Sunday) is something older people do. Or maybe it is just the strain of completing a 13-mile course that makes even the most sprightly - John Inverdale, for instance - look as though they have just staggered out of the post office after collecting their pension.
advertisementDistance running, at least in my experience of dragging reluctant limbs for miles on end, is something you do when you can no longer play proper games, a way of proving that you are still vaguely potent. It is, in short, mid-life crisis sport.
Well, not in India it’s not. According to a documentary on Five on Monday, over there it is not something you take up when you have lost your teeth, but before your first set have grown.
This was one of those documentaries whose title rather gave the game away. In the manner of The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, The Woman With A 20 Stone Tumour and The Middle Aged Celebrity Chef Who Made It Round The Great North Run (I may have made that last one up) it was entitled The Four Year Old Boy Who Ran Forty Miles. It came as little surprise, then, to discover it was about Budhia Singh, a four-year-old boy who ran 40 miles.
Poor little Budhia has led an eventful life. He was born in a slum in Orissa, the poorest state in India, which is about as wrong side of the tracks as it comes.
Worse, his father was an alcoholic who drank all the money his mother earned. So hopeless was his mum’s situation, she sold her son to a door-to-door peddlar for a tenner. It was not clear what this chap wanted with his new purchase, but he too was fond of the bottle, as well as mistreating the boy.
One day, Budhia retaliated by hurling stones at him, then ran away. Living on the streets, he was picked up by an Orissa philanthropist called Biranchi, who put him in the judo school he ran.
Biranchi’s motives seemed more transparent than the peddlar’s: he was filmed swimming semi-naked in the school pool with half a dozen small boys clambering all over him.
Sadly, if Budhia thought he had escaped from misery and exploitation, it seems Biranchi’s duty of care to the children was a touch lax. On one occasion, he punished the boy for swearing by making him run round the school courtyard. However, he forgot to tell the lad when to stop, disappeared for the day and appeared back six hours later to find him still running. At which point, like a character from Loony Toons, his eyes took on the appearance of a cartoon fruit machine.
From then on the tiny boy was sent on daily 20-mile training runs with an eye to his becoming a future Olympic marathon champion.
Those runs were beautifully filmed. Everywhere Budhia trotted, through stunning countryside and grubby town, he caused a stir. This being India, every step was followed by a crowd. People would pour across fields to watch him jog past, stand on bus shelters, follow him on bikes. His first competitive half marathon caused a near riot as well-wishers and media crowded round the tiny figure. Judging by the panicky look in his eyes, he was having about as much fun as that bloke who decided to compete in the Great North Run in unseasonal heat dressed as an ostrich.
Meanwhile, Budhia’s coach remained stubbornly defiant of conventional sports science. He pooh-poohed the idea the boy might, for instance, drink water during his runs. No liquid will pass his lips, Biranchi insisted; it would stunt his growth.
“If Budhia dies during a race he will be a martyr,” he said, in answer to a gathering band of critics. “And Orissa needs martyrs.” Not really what you want to hear your coach say before a race.
In a depressingly familiar pattern, as Budhia’s fame increased, so did the number of those seeking to use him as a platform for publicity. The state governor had Biranchi arrested for child exploitation. On his release, the coach asked the camera where the politicians had been when Budhia was being beaten up by a drunken peddlar. He had a point.
But Biranchi hardly reinforced his case that the boy was in better hands when he subsequently made Budhia run a record-breaking 40 miles non-stop in baking heat without water.
As the boy’s head rolled and rocked, as his eyes glazed, as he stumbled towards the finish line surrounded by an out-of-control mob, it made such painful viewing that you wanted to reach into the screen to help him.
How the camera crew didn’t just step forward and take the poor lad somewhere where his childhood would not be stolen from him is hard to fathom. Perhaps they were just mindful that had they done so, they wouldn’t have had a film.