- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

BHUBANESHWAR, India — For his armies of cheering fans in India’s slums, he is a small, but nimble, miracle, destined to run his way into history as one of the world’s greatest athletes.

Budhia Singh, a 4-year-old street child, can complete a 26-mile marathon faster than many runners who are twice his height and many times his age.

But just as fame and fortune beckon — and a trip to Britain to star in a TV documentary — doctors who have examined the child phenomenon have ordered an early end to his career.

Alarmed at television footage of him collapsing in the final stages of a record-breaking 43-mile run, Indian health officials told police to take him to a hospital on Friday for tests to see whether the intense exercise was damaging his young body.

Results delivered Saturday confirmed those fears — with doctors warning that he will soon be a physical wreck.

“Making a child this age run marathons on a regular basis will lead to him being physically burned out in a few years,” said Dr. M. Bhattacharya of the Sports Authority of India, who discovered that Budhia had abnormally high pulse and blood-pressure readings.

“It’s not desirable to submit such a young body to so much stress and strain. Those who think they’re doing the child a service by promoting him to run such long distances are causing him terrible damage,” he said.

Budhia — hailed as the world’s youngest marathon runner, although he has no birth certificate to prove his age — is now the subject of a legal wrangle between the state authorities and his coach, who stands accused of exploiting and maltreating the boy.

The debate is being played out amid huge media interest in the boy’s story, a tale of rags to riches that has transfixed the Indian public.

His mother an illiterate dishwasher, his father an alcoholic beggar, Budhia was sold for nearly $18 to a street hawker after his father died three years ago.

His physical stamina was spotted by a judo coach, Biranchi Das, who caught him bullying another child near his club one day and ordered him to run around an athletics track as a punishment. When he returned five hours later, expecting the child to be long gone, he found him still doing laps.

Since then Mr. Das, who claims to have legally adopted him, has been training him, feeding him a high-protein diet of meat, eggs, milk and soybeans. He runs up to 20 miles on each alternate training day and has taken part in six big races, bringing offers of lucrative sponsorship deals, Mr. Das says.

But his achievements have been less well-received by some government officials, who are anxious to counter India’s image as a country that turns a blind eye to child exploitation.

Pramila Malik, the minister for women and child welfare in Orissa state, where Budhia lives, accused Mr. Das of turning Budhia into “a performing monkey.”

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