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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 23:49 GMT 00:49 UK
Children's marathon runs from poverty
By Sanjaya Jena
Bhubaneswar, Orissa

Mrityunjaya Mandal fainted before he could reach his target

After a poor four-year-old Indian boy sprinted into local record books for running 65km (40 miles) in seven hours in May, many children are following in his footsteps.

Budhia Singh's run catapulted the little boy from the sleepy eastern state of Orissa into the national limelight and controversy with the country divided on the hazards of allowing children to run marathons.

Emboldened by his feat, other children in the state are running long distances for fame and money.

Take for example, 10-year-old Anastasia Barla, a tribal girl from a remote village in the Sundargarh district.

She recently ran 65km and then, after a break of five minutes, went on to complete 72km (45 miles) - all in eight hours. Her target was to cover 105km (65 miles).

Anastasia had trained hard - earlier in July she had run 60km (37 miles) in less than six hours.

Or take Mrityunjaya Mandal who actually fainted 11km (7 miles) short of a targeted 80km (50 miles) run recently.

Although he failed to reach the target, Mrutunjaya could well claim that he surpassed the much-publicised Budhia Singh's 65km (40 miles) run.

Another child Dillip Rana from Pipli ran 90km (56 miles) during a practice session.

The 12-year-old has now sought permission from the authorities to run 100km (62 miles) to set a new record - his coach says he has exceptional stamina.

High targets

A marathon race is usually a 42km (26 miles) run.

But these sprinting children in Orissa are audaciously setting much higher targets - sometimes at 100km (62 miles) and at times, even more.

Anastasia's target was to run 105km

Anastasia's original plan was to run 105km (65 miles).

Budhia's coach says he now wishes to run nearly 400km (248 miles) from the capital city, Bhubaneswar, to Calcutta in the neighbouring state of West Bengal without a break.

There are a dozen other children attending rigorous practice sessions to shape their future as marathon runners.

All of them hail from poor and rural backgrounds. Their parents do not have the means to support their athletic training.

For instance, Budhia was born in a Bhubaneswar slum. Unable to feed him and his three siblings, his mother sold him off to a street vendor for 800 rupees ($18).

Fortunately, he was bought back by his coach Biranchi Das who spotted his talent for running and began to groom him for success.

Household name

The others come from equally humble backgrounds.

Dillip Rana is the son of a daily-wage earner, while Anastasia and Mrutyunjaya Mandal come from poor farming families.

Many say these children are following in Budhia's footsteps in an attempt to run away from poverty.

For, ever since his run, Budhia has earned fame as well as money.

Today, he is a household name in Orissa - several music companies have come out with video albums which show Budhia running on the highways and rugged roads, scaling hills and practicing judo with other children.

In a recent popularity contest, organised by a local TV channel, Budhia stood second after the state chief minister, Naveen Patnaik.

Budhia runs
Budhia during his run in MayPics: Sanjib Mukherjee
But the Orissa government is not impressed by this display of physical stamina.

Officials say the children are being made to run beyond their capacity and may suffer from early burnout.

They say strenuous exercise may also make them vulnerable to diseases like arthritis as well as liver and lung problems.

Soon after Budhia's run, the state-run Child Welfare Council banned long-distance running by children.

Budhia's coach has challenged the decision in court. The court has heard the arguments but is yet to deliver a verdict.

Under these circumstances, Orissa Women and Child Welfare Minister Pramila Mallick says they are unlikely to grant permission to Dilip Rana for his 100km (62 miles) run.

"The state government has already imposed restrictions on marathon races by children. The matter is in court and under these circumstance, we cannot allow another child to undertake a long-distance run."

But the children carry on with their marathon runs in spite of the ban.

When Anastasia embarked on her run, no government agency stepped in to stop her although she had announced her schedule a week before.

Sports lovers say it shows that the state government is not serious.

Budhia video
Budhia's music videos are hugely popular
"It prohibits children from marathon races, but on the other hand, it watches as a passive onlooker when children like Anastasia run and get exhausted on the way. The government must back its decision with sincere action," says sports enthusiast Rajendra Mohapatra.

Many people in the state say they want to see these children prosper as world-class runners and are calling on the government and private sponsors to come forward and support the children.

"These children are not ordinary. They are prodigies born to earn name and fame for themselves and the country as a whole. They need to be cared for and groomed and the government must facilitate it," says Saroj Sahu, a Bhubaneswar resident.

And the parents of the child "prodigies" want their children to make and break all records overnight.

"Running is a natural instinct with my son. He has the ability to run miles relentlessly. The government stipulation is certainly going to jeopardise his future," says Sukanti Singh, Budhia's mother.

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