Guiseppe Sinigaglia – ‘The ‘Italian Giant’

Guiseppe Sinigaglia – ‘The ‘Italian Giant’.

Tim Koch writes,

HTBS of 29 July asked, “Is the Mystery Man the Champion Sculler Guiseppe Sinigaglia?” The answer is ‘No’. Sinigaglia was 14 stone 10 pounds (93.5 kg / 206 pounds) and 6 foot 4 inches (193 cms). This is big for modern times. By the standards of the turn of the century he was, in the words of The Times newspaper, ‘the Italian Giant’. The man in the picture is of average (or even below average) size compared to everyone else in the photograph.

What I know of Guiseppe Sinigaglia comes through my researches on the career of William ‘Wally’ Kinnear (1880-1974) the world’s best sculler in the period 1910 to 1913. The paths of the two men crossed several times.

Kinnear raced in the Coupe des Nations d’Aviron, a 4,000-metre race on the Seine in Paris, in 1912, 1913 and 1914. Though 14 lbs / 12 kg lighter and 4 inches / 10 cms shorter, he beat Sinigaglia to second place in the first two races but lost to him in 1914, claiming that a tug washed him down for part of the way. The French newspaper Le Martin reported on the 1913 race:

Kinnear showed his imposing superiority. He defeated his competition without rushing, when it suited him.

In 1965 Kinnear recalled his first Coupe des Nations in an interview recorded on audio tape by his son, Donald:

…. I met an Italian called Sinigaglia, a big 6 foot 4 man, 14 1/2 stone… to cut a long story short, I beat him. Before the race on the Seine I was introduced to a man called Deperdussin. He had a big factory on the river, he made all sorts of aircraft… He said to me if you beat this Italian I’ll present you with one of my sculling boats…. His warehouse or factory was a mile from the start and when I passed his place I was just been beaten by Sinigaglia, he went by me and I thought ‘there goes my French sculling boat’. Anyway I stuck to Sinigaglia and after another half mile …. I looked to my right hand side and there he was, beaten, stopped and that’s how I won my first Coupe de Nations.

W.D. Kinnear after winning the Coup des Nations d’Aviron in 1913. The legs are not obviously those of a champion.

Kinnear then recalled what happened after he lost in Paris in 1914:

…. Sinigaglia asked me if I was going for (Henley’s Diamond Sculls) after that, I said no I’m not, I’m finished sculling at home. So he came over for the Diamonds….. and in the final he met the man who had beat me in the first heat in 1912 when I was stale, a chap that I could scull rings round.

This was C.M. Stuart. There follows a long story about the victorious Stuart boasting that ‘he knew that he could do it’ while not acknowledging that Kinnear was over-trained in preparation for the upcoming Stockholm Olympics. Fifty years on, Kinnear was still rankled and clearly contemptuous of Stuart:

…..for the final of the (1914) Diamonds it had turned a bit cold, very cold, and being an Italian he.., they don’t like cold weather… his advisor and trainer came up to me and said Sinigaglia refuses to go out for the final, he’s sitting there and you must come and talk to him…. I couldn’t talk Italian, I could talk English in my own way, and I said to his trainer, you tell him that he’s a bloody coward. He told him and he flared up in a Italian way and he had to keep him off me and I said, all right just you go out, you’ve got Stuart… what are you worrying about, just because he beat me, you think you’ve got something to do, you’ve got nothing to do. All you’ve got to do is listen for my voice half way over the course and I’ll shout out ‘Now Sinigaglia!’ in my own way and you’ll hear that. Well he went, he came down the course, he was leading off the mark and he led for just a few hundred yards up the river and then he let Stuart go sailing by and Stuart was as white as a sheet and I said ‘Now Sinigaglia’ (laughs) and he just opened up and went by him and beat him anyhow. From that day I felt that I should not have done that, there was a feeling against me for some time, they had just felt that I had sponsored an Italian to win the Diamonds and beat an Englishman at Henley. But I’ve got reasons of my own for that…

Thus Kinnear claimed a share of the credit for Sinigaglia’s victory. The idea that he would not go out because it was cold seems a little unlikely but Johan ten Berg writes that Sinigaglia ‘is mentioned as one of the entries (in the 1912 Holland Beker), but as he isn’t mentioned in the results in the newspapers, he may not have started’. Johan continues, ‘In another article it states that Gerhard Nunninghof, Kölner Club für Wassersport, won a heat on walk-over as Sinigaglia did not show up at the start’. Thus the man did have a record of not turning up for his races. Nowadays, he would perhaps be treated by a sports psychologist.

More certain is that the Henley programme had the big man at 14 stone 10 pounds (93.5 kg / 206 pounds) while Stuart was down as 11 stone (70 kg / 154 pounds) so it is arguable that the Italian would have eventually passed the Englishman even without Kinnear’s inspiring call (which in any case would be rather difficult to hear on the water). Further, the account of the race in The Times newspaper of 6 July 1914 does not fully agree with Kinnear’s version:

Stuart, who rowed 37 strokes in his first minute, dashed off with the lead, the Italian doing 38. Sinigaglia hit the piles at the top of the Island and this enabled Stuart to lead by two lengths at the quarter mile. Sinigaglia reduced this by half a length at the next signal and, spurting hard, was nearly level at Fawley. A great race followed to the mile. Stuart answered his opponent’s spurts and kept just ahead. Sinigaglia sculled with great power and at the lower end of the Enclosure Stuart suddenly stopped, completely rowed out and had to be lifted from his boat onto the umpire’s launch. Sinigaglia finished alone.

(Sinigaglia’s Henley opponents had a hard time of it. In a heat against Dibble of Don Rowing Club, Toronto, on 3 July, the Canadian fell out of his boat at the finish and had to be rescued by the umpire).

The newspaper report on the final may be more accurate than Kinnear’s recollections but is not such a good story. There is a poignant conclusion to the Wally’s memories of France in the summer of 1914:

I had a good time in Paris. An English gentleman, a millionaire, took me all over the place… We had a wonderful time… we were having lunch on the Marne, on the lawn having Champagne with this gentleman and within a month the Germans had overrun this part…

Within two years of the outbreak of the First World War, Guiseppe Sinigaglia, ‘the Italian Giant’, the winner of the 1914 Coup des Nations and of the 1914 Diamond Sculls would be dead – along with millions of others. It must have seemed that ‘Champagne on the lawn’ had ended forever.

Le Martin, 4 June 1912. The order of the Coup des Nations at this stage is probably the French-Russian, Peressenlenzeff in the lead followed by Sinigaglia and then Kinnear.

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