Considered by many as the greatest marathon runner ever, Eliud Kipchoge was discovered by the accomplished coach Patrick Sang at the age of 16.
After less than two years of training under Sang, Kipchoge stunned the world by winning the 5,000 metres at the Paris world championships in 2003, beating greats like Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele.
Having stunned the world himself by running 65km in 7hrs, 2min at the age of six, India’s Budhia Singh, now 16, is a picture in contrast. He has been forgotten and abandoned.
Without a coach, the youngster trains six days a week, all on his own, and still dreams of Olympic glory. “I want to win Olympic gold for India in marathon at the 2024 Olympics,” Budhia told Reuters.
When asked about the importance of making sure promising talent is nurtured correctly, Sang tells Reuters: “The role of a coach in handling young runners like Budhia is critical. Workload for an age like his must be monitored so that they’re not over trained, exposed to injuries and burn out.”
In fact, Sang goes a step further and says he is willing to help Budhia. Having trained Kipchoge for 17 years, and several other champion athletes, Sang is known to choose his words carefully when discussing prospective students.
After hearing about the extraordinary childhood of Budhia, where he ran marathon-equivalent distances more than 25 times by the age of six, the 54-year old coach takes a cautious approach.
“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,” says Sang.
“To me ideally it’s a case where medical experts should intervene a little bit to assess and see the status of this boy physiologically and psychologically.
“If it’s clear clinically and there are no other factors pushing him in that direction to do what he is doing, then we can move towards testing his potential to see what he is capable of.
“If everything is normal then some of us can come in and contribute. He can be helped if potential is there,” adds Sang, who was in Bangalore for the recent TCS World 10K event.
Sang, himself a 3,000m steeplechase silver medallist at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, says Budhia’s potential could even be converted to shorter distances on the track before tackling professional marathons.
“After medical examination, Budhia’s potential can be tested by making him run 5,000m and 10,000m and see how he performs,” the Kenyan says.
“I wouldn’t talk of marathon running for him until he’s over 20 years.”
It’s a tactic that has served Kenyan runners well over the years.
“The longevity of the early (marathon) undertakers is short lived compared to old-school type,” Sang explains.
The coaching guru believes it takes three to five years to reach world-class marathon runner ranges, except for late bloomers. After turning 20, Budhia will have six years to take a shot at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, if not the 2024 Games in Paris.
As the interview approaches the finish line, Sang tells Reuters: “After all the assessment and test of his potential, if Budhia is found to be OK, then I’m willing to find a sponsor and train him in Kenya.”
The question now is whether the Indian sports ministry or any relevant organisation takes the initiative to have Budhia assessed and get him to a stage where Sang can take over.