IT has come as a surprise to many people to learn that newspapers and sports magazines in the 18th century carried reports of athletes running a mile in, and even inside, four minutes.
But there are several such reports, the first being of James Parrott, who was said to have run a measured mile in four minutes in London on May 9, 1770 - 184 years before Roger Bannister set his record.
In 1787 and 1796, two other runners were so confident of their abilities that they too wagered they could run a mile inside four minutes.
The results of the first cannot be found, but it involved a runner by the name of Powell and we know that he ran a time-trial in 4.03 in preparation for it. The 1000 guineas stake - more than 78,000 in modern money - made detailed preparation well worthwhile.
The other runner, named Weller, who usually ran his races around the Oxford and Woodstock area, came from a family of famous runners, and he was reported to have run his wager two seconds inside the time, at 3.58. So Parrott is the first recorded athlete to run a mile in four minutes and Weller is the first to run it inside four minutes.
I have followed Parrott’s course using a contemporary road map that tallies remarkably with a modern one. His run began on Goswell Street, just north of the City of London, then took a gentle right turn along Rotten Row to Old Street and finished at the gates of St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch.
It is as good a road running course as anyone could devise - the road is wide and flat and goes through a neighbourhood that was famous for sporting events that were known to draw thousands of spectators each time.
We also know that in this area they began timing races to the nearest second in 1763 and that good watches at this time were well capable of measuring a four-minute mile to an accuracy of a fraction of a second. Indeed, John Harrison’s H4 watch, which he completed in 1759, would have timed a four-minute mile to an accuracy of 0.0002 seconds.
The reluctance of many to accept, or even consider, these reports stems partly from the belief that the best athletes that have ever lived are alive today.
The current list of World Records is cited as evidence of that. We have also been told that records have risen steadily throughout the 20th century and are only now beginning to level off.
This seems to suggest that performances in Victorian Britain and earlier were little better than those of today’s schoolboys.
SECONDLY, there seems to be such a belief in modern training methods, equipment and knowledge, that some find it inconceivable that anyone could succeed without them. But how accurate is all this?
Before modern labour-saving technology came along men and women led lives that were extremely physical. In the 18th century, there was no electricity, no internal combustion engine or even steam power to help people with their everyday chores.
Travel, food production and everyday living depended on the spring in your step, the strength of your arms and back, and the sweat on your brow.
There are many references of people walking from Edinburgh to London. Parrott was a costermonger, or in our parlance, a porter, in one of London’s markets.
His life, every working hour, every working day, probably for years, would have been spent on his feet carrying loads from one place to another.
We now spend so much of our lives sitting down at work or when we travel and spend so much time pressing switches and buttons to get our jobs done, that most of us have no notion at all of the way our ancestors once lived.
Our children certainly don’t, as the imminent obesity crisis tells us. Our ancestors didn’t need to take out a subscription to the local gym or employ a personal trainer to keep their muscles toned and their waistlines in check.
What is more surprising, perhaps, is that we believe that our soft, pampered world can produce half-decent athletes at all in comparison with the past, not that they couldn’t 200 years ago.
Now that most of our schoolchildren don’t even walk to and from school and certainly don’t walk very far before or after it, the modern sports coach is likely to spend a considerable time getting his charges to a base-line of fitness that would have been commonplace for many of our ancestors, before any work can even be started to hone them into shape for serious competition.
THE explanation for the relatively poor running records at the start of the 20th century is largely social, not physical. The working classes who were physically best prepared to succeed in sport were excluded from it because they did not have time for it, or were specifically denied the opportunity to even take part because of the amateur rules that were stringently applied.
If you competed for money, the newly emerging governing bodies of sport excluded you for life. Sport in Victorian Britain became the playground of middle and upper-class men with time on their hands and money in their pockets and women were excluded completely.
In the 18th century, however, men and women competed for money and there is a growing body of evidence that their performances in many events were far in advance of the Victorians who followed them and that their lives prepared them to perform physically at a level that is increasingly hard for us to achieve.
Perhaps, as in music, literature and architecture, the 18th century was one of the golden ages of sport, and perhaps it is Parrott, Powell, Weller and their like who we should be putting forward as examples to our children, rather than those of the present day.
• Peter Radford is professor of sport sciences at Brunel University. He is an Olympic medallist and former holder of the 100m and 200m world records