It is a name that appears to have now fallen out of memory, but Constantin Henriquez was a rugby and sporting pioneer at the turn of the 20th century. Henriquez is considered to be the first black athlete, the first Afro-Caribbean and the first Haitian Olympic champion. It was in rugby, representing France at the Paris Olympics in 1900, that he made history.
A complete athlete
Henriquez's precise date of birth is unknown. His grandson, Lionel Henriquez, who died in April 2020, estimated his birth at "around 1876-1877" in Port-de-Paix, Haiti. What seems to be certain, however, is that his father, who was a local politician, sent him to France in 1893 to study medicine. It was there, more than 7,300 km from his home, that Henriquez discovered rugby for the first time.
At that time, Henriquez was already a well-rounded athlete. He distinguished himself in athletics, where he won a university title in pole vault after a jump of 2.60 metres.
In rugby, the young Haitian found everything he was looking for concentrated in one sport: speed, endurance, physical challenges, strategy, and camaraderie. He picked the game up quickly and, like many players at the time, was versatile, playing well as number eight, wing and centre.
In the rugby microcosm of the capital of France, everyone knew each other and the leaders of the clubs were also the founders of the Union of French Athletic Sports Societies (the USFSA, which later became the French Rugby Union), which Baron Pierre de Coubertin had just begun. They were the ones who would be in charge of putting together a rugby team for the Olympics. It was here that Henriquez's dream would come true.
A gold medal in the first "Olympic Crunch"
At that time, rugby union was still part of the Olympic programme. A tournament was organised between three teams representing France, Germany and England in October 1900.
To represent France, the USFSA selected the best players from three clubs: the Racing club de France, the Cosmopolitan Club and the Stade Français, where Henriquez was then registered and with which he would become champion of France in 1901.
Henriquez was retained in the squad and was set to compete in the colours of France in the 1900 Olympic Games. He would wear the blue and red USFSA rings sewn onto his white jersey.
After beating Germany at the Vincennes Velodrome 27-17 on October 14, France beat England 27-8 two weeks later in front of nearly 6,000 people. This first “Olympic crunch” was a real success that filled the organisers' coffers and presented France with the gold medal.
Back home to Haiti
Henriquez did not stay long in France after the tournament, instead spending the rest of his life developing sport in Haiti. As the legend has it, he would go on to introduce the country to various different sports, including football, which he introduced in 1904.
According to the local press reporting the words of his grandson Lionel, Henriquez trained the athlete Sylvio Cator, who won a silver medal in the long jump at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 and became the event's world record holder with a 7.93-metre jump the same year, as well as the sprinter André Théard, who competed in the Olympic Games in 1924, 1928 and 1932.
Henriquez also became a qualified doctor and the first president of the Haitian Olympic Committee, elected in 1906 and reelected in 1912, when the Haitian Sports Union (USH) and the Haitian Societies Union (USSHIl) were created. The sporting pioneer died in Haiti in 1942.