Mickael and Bassa Mawem will be the sole sibling pair in the Tokyo 2020 Sport Climbing event, occupying the two men's quota places for France. Their journey to Tokyo has been circuitous and uncertain; the brothers describe having started life with 'le révers de la médaille,' — the flipside of the coin, or the short straw. Shaped by an unsettled childhood that was stabilised by their resilient mother, who strove to give her sons the opportunity to succeed, the Mawems reversed their fortunes through focused determination and hard work.
Siblings excelling in the same sport is not unheard of — there were 36 sibling pairs in the Rio 2016 Games — but when two brothers are vying for the only two available country quota places in an individual sport, the stakes are undoubtedly higher.
A late-starter compared to many on the circuit, Bassa Mawem, 36, discovered climbing through school sport at the age of 15. Like many younger siblings, Mickael was quick to follow in his brother's hand and footholds. The pair would train outside of the climbing gym opening hours at home on a rudimentary set-up and on a concrete wall in a local park. They naturally did everything at a rapid pace; from pull-ups to power training. In the early 2010s, France was emerging as an up-and-coming nation in Speed climbing. Bassa joined the French team and its national training camps in Voiron in 2011, eventually becoming a five-time French Speed Champion.
Bassa divides his time between New Caledonia and mainland France, coaching and training with Mickael when the pair are in the same place, or competing in international events. Up until 2019, however, the brothers hadn't competed against one another in an international event due to their different specialisms: Bassa in Speed, Mickael in Boulder. Both are extremely dynamic climbers; Mickael applied his explosive power and fast reaction times to the shifting, increasingly acrobatic landscape of modern bouldering, while Bassa's smooth 'running' style on the Speed wall — with precise foot placements and co-ordinated hand movements occurring in a fluid motion — makes him a consistent top-10 competitor in Speed World Cups, where erratic results can be commonplace. Bassa is the most decorated male Speed climber in the Olympic line-up, having won eleven medals and the overall Speed World Cup title twice in both 2018 and 2019, in addition to a silver medal in the Innsbruck World Championships in 2018.
Mickael's consistency in achieving top-30 results across Boulder and Speed World Cups put him in a strong position to earn a Tokyo 2020 quota place. A win in France's first Combined championships in 2018 confirmed his versatility, and in 2019 he reached his peak, finishing 7th in the Hachioji Combined World Championships and with it a ticket to Tokyo at the first possible opportunity. Mickael continued this run of form and confidence by winning the IFSC European Boulder Championships in Zakopane, Poland the following month.
Although he was visibly overjoyed at his younger brother's achievement, Bassa became even more determined to join Mickael in Tokyo. Only two opportunities to qualify remained, the later of which — the IFSC European Championships in Moscow, where a single ticket would be up for grabs — seemed too much like last chance saloon to the brothers. Yet as multiple Speed specialists were already qualified and out of the picture, Bassa was odds-on to qualify in Toulouse in November 2019. It was a nervous wait for Mickael, who suddenly found himself in the unenviable position of watching his brother compete in the most important event in his career to date, with his own ticket already in hand. In front of a home crowd, Bassa made the cut in Toulouse with room to spare by dominating the Speed rounds and finishing 4th. Bassa is the oldest Sport Climbing athlete qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Games and is almost 20 years older than the youngest. He's also one of just two qualified athletes who has a child.
'We only know how to move forward and keep going because it's the model that we have had every day in front of us in our mother. She advances, she doesn't stall or retreat, it's just what she's always done. Our life example is our mum.'
The Mawems are also the only Black athletes in the Sport Climbing line-up for Tokyo. It's at once a highly significant and influential position to be in, but it could paint a misleading picture of the level of diversity in what is unquestionably a predominantly white sport. The brothers have experienced racism in their everyday lives and 'a clash of cultures' on their travels to international competitions. Mickael is frequently stopped by the police and brusquely interrogated, only to be released with deferred respect when his status as an elite athlete representing France is revealed. Bassa speaks of a divisive intolerance of difference that pervades society, from racism to ableism.
Despite sharing common goals and a close affinity for one another, devoid of rivalry, the brothers are contrasting personalities; Bassa is introverted and pensive, while Mickael is the extroverted and more exuberant younger sibling. Both exude a palpable enthusiasm for the sport, which they hope to instill in others by engaging with fans on social media and investing in future climbing gym projects in their name.
As the dynamic duo prepare for the postponed Tokyo Games, Bassa and Mickael shared the story of their family and climbing origins, described their bond as brothers and business partners in building their Les Frères Mawem brand, discussed diversity in climbing and explained how their mother's unyielding determination inspired them to tackle adversity — in everyday life, or in training — head-on and with conviction. In Tokyo and, they hope, Paris 2024, the brothers will compete to bring home medals for the Mawem family, where a win for one would be a win for all; there's no 'I' in Team Mawem.
Interview translated from French
You both started climbing relatively late. What were your initial steps into the sport?
Bassa: I discovered climbing at the UNSS, the National Union of School Sports. At school, between noon and 2 p.m. we could try different sporting activities. I had a friend who offered to let me try climbing. I went with him, I liked it a lot and the next day I was registered in a club. Mickael followed me into the sport.
You trained in your basement when you were teenagers. What did you learn during this training period at home?
Bassa: Yes, we were training in the cellar at our parents' house, where we had installed a campus board with lots of holds. There were about a hundred holds on it with nothing at the bottom, so we couldn't put our feet on it and we were doing footless circuits of 30-50 movements. This was our little play area with climbing holds and next to it we had a fingerboard where we did pull-ups and we also used electro-stimulation. We were training, but we didn't know how to train! On the other hand, we knew that we had to pull, so we just did that. We didn't learn much, but what I'd say is that the objective was clear: we wanted to train, we wanted to become strong and that was our priority, so we stacked the odds in our favour with the little means we had to do what we wanted to do.
You both did gymnastics - did this influence your very dynamic and acrobatic climbing styles, and your approach to training?
Bassa: I don't think that gymnastics influenced our style, but we've always been very dynamic. We just never did things slowly, so when we started climbing our goal was not to climb slowly but to climb fast because it was clear when we did a series of pull-ups slowly and then quickly, we saw that doing them quickly was less tiring! We always trained by doing things quickly and efficiently and I think that's what developed our style today.
You have briefly mentioned your mother and how she inspired you. Tell us about her influence on you?
Bassa: Our mother, she's a fighter. She's someone who's never had an easy life since the day she decided to leave home at a very young age. When she left home she was still a minor and she's always fought and frankly, she's always had a hard time. It was always complicated; she went from British Guiana to French Guiana without her parents before she was 18, then she came over to France with our father who was a legionnaire. She followed him to France but she couldn't speak a word of French, only English. Then after going back to Guyana, my father returned to France. After my parents' divorce, my father got custody, so we ended up in Africa.
I'll skip the details, but ultimately she's never had any luck. For my mother, the only source of happiness was her children and she always fought for her children, for us to have the chance of being educated, the chance to live like everybody else, like Europeans. To have the same opportunities in any case, the chance not to be wronged by our past. She always fought for us. Today, we've succeeded because we could go to school, we could be educated. Our mother was lucky to meet our current step-father, who has been a pillar for her in terms of stability, and then about 4-5 years ago she had liver cancer. It was a complicated operation and it's still there today. She still has a lot of repercussions. Last year she was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, so it's still a complicated situation.
Our mother is always fighting and if we don't have an easy time, it's not that it's easy for us to fight as such, but we were just born with this example of fighting spirit and we're just unlikely to give up for little things when we know what's really hard in life, given that we know what is truly difficult through what our mother has lived through and is still living with today. Abandoning hope or giving up because we have minor difficulties in life, it's unlikely. Little hurdles crop up and we manage them; we throw them in the bin and we move forward. We only know how to move forward and keep going because it's the model that we have had every day in front of us in our mother. She advances, she doesn't stall or retreat, it's just what she's always done. Our life example is our mum. We are ready to fight, we try to be good examples, we like to win, but we know how to lose. We respect all athletes and humans around us because we've grown up with a model human being, in our eyes.
Speed is Bassa's speciality but you are both fast and France has a great set-up for speed. What did you think when you learned about the Combined format for Tokyo? Were you both keen to aim for the Olympics?
Bassa: It's a very good question that makes us laugh a bit today, but staying motivated was complicated. There was a sense of disillusionment because when we knew that climbing would be at the Olympics, we said "Yes, we're going — two places per country and it will be us, why not us, it certainly could be us!" On the other hand, it wasn't so much the format that bothered us, but rather the number of quota places, so when we knew that there were only two French male spots, it dented our morale slightly because there was lots of competition: there were contenders like Alban Levier, Manu Cornu, and Romain Desgranges. We had a lot of people behind us and some young guys as well, like the Avezou brothers. We thought 'Wow, it's going to be tough!'
Then we learned that there were only twenty places in total and then we said to ourselves: "Well, if one of us qualifies, it will already be a great performance and we will have done well." Then we learned that there would realistically only be two qualification stages, otherwise one of us would have to finish 1st in the European Championship, which would be difficult. It's not really about luck, but just because you have to be ready on the D-Day, it's not good enough to be good, you've got to be the best, so it's a bit of a poker gamble. We had two events, the World Championship in Hachioji and the selection event in Toulouse. We knew they would take between 6 and 8 athletes and it would be a blow for us if we missed out because we'd trained like animals to get there, but on the other hand we agreed that if one of us made it, it wouldn't be so bad because it's not a national level competition, it's a world-level competition and we had to be among the best of the best.
We knew that we were strong, we knew that we had our chances, but all the others also had their chances. It was not complicated to manage, but there were certainly quite a few moments of doubt. On the other hand, I think our strength is that even in moments of doubt, we don't waste our time and we continue to push forwards: we train, we train, we train. I think that's what enabled both of us to qualify — we never gave up and we didn't have any moments of weakness.
Mickael was the first to qualify in Hachioji. What was it like for both of you? Was there any tension or competition between you? Bassa, what was it like to see your little brother qualify for the Olympics?
Bassa: Mike's qualification was really something extraordinary, it really is one of my most beautiful memories and strongest emotions, both as an athlete and as a brother. I was super proud of my brother, he was really proud of himself. I was proud of him for our family and I was proud of his success, but at the same time it took a big weight off my shoulders because we don't train together, but I train him; I'm the one coaching Mike and I'm the one who was planning everything, so seeing him succeed really took away my job and also allowed me to focus only on myself, so I think that's also what allowed me to qualify.
'There's no spirit of competition between us at all — far from it, in fact, because our mindset is centred around the fact that we have two chances to win.'
In 2019, the first four months of Mike's season before the World Championship, he had a series of poor performances. It wasn't an easy situation because he started this event with only bad results behind him and he was able to let go and do what he could do best on the day it mattered — and that's what allowed him to qualify. That's all I want to say really: bravo to my brother, because I honestly don't know a single person who would have been able to keep up with all these counter-performances. My brother has a fighting spirit and that's what I said before about our mother, that's what she taught us — to never give up, to always keep moving forward, that's what he managed to do after four months of poor performances and in the end he took his place at the Olympics, so congratulations again!
...and in Toulouse, how was it for you Mickael to watch Bassa in the competition?
Mickael: It was a pleasure to be able to take part in a big competition with my brother. It's rare to be able to do the same discipline, as we'd never been able to compete together before at international level. The Olympic Games brought us closer and it's really effective because we work the same way; we have the same rigour during the competitions, we get up early, we eat the same things. We were really in agreement and that can be difficult for other members of the team. We are really strict, which is a bit annoying for some people, so being together is much easier.
We really don't have any competition between us. We try to be the best of both of us — if giving his best puts Bassa ahead of me then I'll be very happy for him and if it's the other way around I know it will be the same, but the main goal is that a competition turns out well for both of us. When I'm in a competition with my brother, I don't just want my brother to succeed, I also want to succeed and this goes in both directions, so it pushes us higher. There's no spirit of competition between us at all — far from it, in fact, because our mindset is centred around the fact that we have two chances to win.
Watching Bassa climb is always very stressful, but qualifying for Tokyo was different as we always knew exactly what we had to do. He qualified in Toulouse in the best possible way. I was super stressed, but I kept myself at a distance in order to not let it affect his focus. I think I was even more stressed than he was, but fortunately he did it!
How did your family react when you both qualified?
Mickael: After my qualification and of course my brother's, the first call we made was to our family, our whole family, we woke them up at whatever hour to tell them the news! It's something we share as a family, all our successes and defeats, all our happiness and misfortunes. We share it all as a family and I think that's what makes us strong; we always have someone around us who is there to push us in the right direction.
Bassa, you are a father - how do you manage training and fatherhood?
Bassa: I deal with it like anything else. I'm a dad, I work, I have a job, that's life! Young people today also have constraints: they have studies, while I have a son. It's not so much a constraint, it's just that it requires a different kind of organisation and in the life of a sportsman or woman, whoever he or she may be, in the end we always need something else in life that requires organisation. It can be a real challenge if you start working at 24-27 years old. You have to reorganise yourself afterwards if you want to continue your sports career. It's possible that you might have a child by that point, so when you have a child you have to reorganise yourself. In fact, we're constantly reorganising ourselves because things change in life, so for me having a son is not at all a constraint, it's just that it requires organisation like any other thing in life, that's what it's all about.
How did you feel about the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games?
The postponement of the Olympics for us was good news in the sense that at the time they postponed the Games the situation in the world was really chaotic. There were cases here in France, everywhere in Europe and Asia was overrun by it. I believe that they were right to postpone at that moment. It was clear that it was just impossible, which is fair — if they had either kept the date or pushed it back two or three months, there were a lot of athletes who could not train at all compared to others who could train normally because they were confined in climbing schools. For example, in China the Chinese trained non-stop, so there would have been a real disparity between the nations and there would not have been any equity in the competition.
Given that this is the first Olympics in the history of Sport Climbing, the important thing for us athletes is that we represent our country, and if on the day of these Olympics we're at 60 percent of our capacity, it would not be fair. I am an athlete, I like to have opponents who are not at my level, either stronger or a little less strong, but there must be a challenge and frankly if the Olympics had not been postponed there would have been no challenge; those who weren't locked-down would have won and those who were more affected by the virus would have been off form. It was good news — good news for climbing, good news for the Olympics and good news for the athletes who could focus on their own health and that of their families and take a break from climbing and move forward while prioritising what was important.
What will you focus on to prepare for the Olympics? Can you help each other with your different strengths and weaknesses?
Bassa: We're just going to focus on our strengths and that's all, really!
You are planning to open a climbing gym and have built a business around the brand Les Frères Mawem, including a merchandise boutique. Is it important for you to interact with your fans and have something outside of competitions?
Bassa: Yes, Mike communicates with our followers a lot as it's his field of competence, it's his job to make the Mawem Brothers' brand grow. My job is to manage the climbing wall project, to develop the climbing activities in the gyms. We complement one another, he takes care of the communication and development of our brand and I take care of the administrative management. It's as big a project as our personal climbing projects. We want to set up our Mawem brothers climbing wall, then a second and a third, we'll see! Long before the Olympic project, we wanted to build a climbing gym and we're not there yet, but it's going to happen. We're building this project in parallel with our training sessions.
Mickael, you wrote on Instagram about your experience with the police in France and the racism you experienced while traveling to competitions. 'Racism in sport is different, I would call it the clash of cultures.' you wrote. Can you explain what you shared in your text?
Mickael: I'll tell you a little bit about my history with racism, or the differences in culture — at least that's what I call it. In the world of climbing, or in sport in general, it's true that since I've been in the French team, it's allowed me to travel a lot in Asia, in Eastern Europe, the United States, everywhere really. Each country has its culture and therefore we have to be able to adapt. A lot of people have difficulty adapting, or at least pay a lot of attention to us. With people of certain nations in the competitions, for example, I couldn't even start a discussion. After 23 competitions we can now communicate with other athletes because people get to know each other, we chat and we learn to actually get to know the person in front of us. It's not learning, as such, to get to know someone personally, but it means that we're all here for the same thing, we come to do the same sport, for a result. We train and it brings us much closer, we get stronger and especially in climbing we have this relationship where we warm up together — not just beside each other, but together — and we meet outside a lot to train together.
'For as long as the world does not take the human being under all its forms, equity won't happen.'
All the barriers that exist between certain countries are not because of sport, because sport allows us to have time to get to know people. The difference at home today is that when we see someone in the street, we don't ask ourselves if we know this person before we start to judge him or her, and instead we judge them before we get to know them — it's what we call prejudices. People go by what they see on TV or social networks, about Blacks, Arabs, Muslims, etc. who do bad things, which is all you see in the media. They don't realise that it's a small group of people who are like that, not a whole culture; it's brainwashing and people retain what they see, facilitated by social networks and the media with fast information and misinformation. I have an iPhone and I have news updates for every 3-4 hours of news but I don't even bother to look at the description sometimes, I just see the title. For a lot of people, reading stops on the headline, except that it doesn't define individuals or a group of individuals; we can't put everybody in the same box.
I suffered a lot of racist abuse where we lived growing up, but I didn't really pay much attention because I was young. What I noticed is that people stop at prejudices; style of dress or skin colour, but as soon as you start talking to people and you tell them a little bit about your life, then they take the time to judge whether you're a good person or not — except that they often do it too late, such as the police arresting me when I haven't committed any offence. They ask me all the basic questions. I get arrested several times a year for no reason, but from the moment I begin to tell them about my life and that I'm in the French team and have represented the country, etc., then their state of mind changes and they don't want to continue their interrogation and they prefer to discuss my career path. It's a pity that the world works like that; people should start in that mindset before rolling out the judgement or prejudices of 'OK this guy has a nice car, he is black, he wears a cap, he looks half asleep, so he may have smoked drugs or he may have drunk alcohol.' People should try to ask the right questions before starting to judge to see if we have done something wrong.
Is there a risk that some people might use your successes as a reason to reject the need to deal with racism and diversity in climbing?
Bassa: Yes there are people who use success as a reason to reject racism and it's very easy to say 'Ah well I respect the police, I don't have any worries in my life, so it's normal that I don't get attacked and it's normal that I don't experience racism!' but in fact it's totally false, these people close their eyes and remain in their own little world. I, my brother, and all the people who are Black, Arab, Chinese, or part of minority groups - all these people suffer from racism, including white people in New Caledonia.
It's a truth, it's really something that's in society, but we mustn't close our eyes to it because the world is not supposed to be like that. We are all human, the only thing that differs is our skin colour and our origins and that's it. Everybody has a body, and disabled people who do not have the chance to have all these things that we find "normal" for being able to live "normally" also undergo this discrimination and it shouldn't be the case today. Everybody knows that on this earth there are Blacks, there are whites, there are Asians, there are Arabs, there are all nationalities and next to that there are people who can't see well, there are people who are small in stature, there are people who are big in stature and so on, but that's part of the world and that's human, so it's not something abnormal. We know that there are differences but it doesn't have to be a difference today, it's normality.
For as long as people don't take all these differences as normal things, there will be this perception of difference and that's what we have to proscribe. As an example, we want to open our climbing gym and we'll say: 'We need to think about making a bridge for the disabled, we need to think about doing things for the visually impaired,' and so on, but in reality the money for this shouldn't be an add-on, the money should already be there, quite simply, invested to make the place accessible to all. Today we are not thinking this way. We have to "adapt" for Blacks, whites, Arabs; adapt our vision and our tools for people who are very heavy or for blind people. It's not intrinsic, it's an add-on each time — not even obligatory sometimes — and for as long as the world does not take the human being under all its forms, equity won't happen. Not for our generation. I imagine it will be for future generations, but I hope that one day humans will be smart enough to make everyone in this world feel good about themselves.
Climbing is generally described as an inclusive, social and welcoming sport. How does this compare to your own experiences in the climbing world?
Bassa: Yes, there is a community of climbers because whether it's outdoors or indoors, it remains a friendly, open sport. It's fundamentally an outdoor sport like surfing and BMX — in all these outdoor sports, in general the atmosphere is cool, the people are open, fun and cool, so there is a real community of climbers, even more so with the climbing gyms of today which regroup and concentrate a big part of this community. Bouldering gyms are popping up like mushrooms all over the world...it increases this community of climbers.
'Giving a young person the chance to dream about climbing in the Olympics is something exceptional; it's like going into space, very few people go to the Olympics.'
I think that what makes the difference in our sport is that even the strongest climbers find themselves in the same place, climbing next to beginners and recreational climbers. There are really no big centres dedicated to top-level sportsmen and women, so they also train in public gyms and that's what makes the difference. There are young people who train with me, there are the 350 young people from the climbing schools, there are all the members, individuals who come and climb once a month or once a week — everyone is mixed. Everyone says hello, everyone respects each other and it's a cool atmosphere. If you go to Céüse, you'll be able to meet Adam Ondra, Alex Megos and a lot of other strong climbers who are not in the media. Everyone climbs together, everyone is at the same level.
Do you think that the development of indoor climbing could help to diversify the sport (indoors and outdoors) in the future, by being more accessible to an urban population and attracting more media attention thanks to the Olympic Games?
Bassa: It's certain that the development of indoor climbing has contributed to diversifying the sport both indoors and out. It's a good thing for the sport, as more participants brings more money. If we ask this question at the crag, many will say no because they want to stay in their small world, quiet with no noise; that's what climbers like, connecting with nature. But it's obvious that in 10, 15 or 20 years, if the sport continues to become more and more democratic, there will be many more people on the crags and this will need to be managed well. The majority of climbers live responsibly, live simply, are quite 'green' and know how to live alongside others, so I don't think it will be a problem.
Before the Olympic announcement, people could aim to make the French team, be in the German team, be in the Indonesian team and so on, to make a World Championship, but something was missing: the Olympic Games. Giving a young person the chance to dream about climbing in the Olympics is something exceptional; it's like going into space, very few people go to the Olympics. Maybe space is too far, but it's still a step beyond the World Championship, which is what makes you dream. In life you have to dream, and for rock climbing today, you can now dream of doing the first 10a just as you can dream of participating in the Olympic Games, but for me it's the same thing, the first 10a will be as big as the qualifier for the Olympic Games.
What are your goals for the future? Would you like to participate in Paris 2024?
Bassa: Paris 2024 is going to be our last objective. We'd like to finish our career in Paris 2024; it's going to be another adventure full of emotion. It's not going to be easy, the level is going to increase, we'll have to adapt again and again and again, but we already knew how to do that for Tokyo, so we're going to do what we have planned for now and after that, things can change and evolve, but frankly, participating in the Olympics is really something very, very beautiful. I hope we'll be able to compete in Tokyo this year and then finish with Paris 2024 as it would be really amazing. We'll have to qualify, then we'll have to win a medal in Paris 2024, which would be the best reward, so it's worth a try.