The Mawem brothers: Two champions chasing the same dream

For any athlete in the world, competing in the Olympic Games is a dream come true. But the dream becomes even bigger when two brothers manage to qualify. That’s what happened to French sport climbers Mickaël and Bassa Mawem.

By Fabrice Deschamps and Guillaume Depasse
Picture by IFSC-Eddie Fowke

When sport climbing was selected as a new Olympic discipline for Tokyo 2020 back in 2016, the Mawem brothers marked the date in their calendars and announced their goal to both qualify to the public. It was a statement that may have sounded crazy to many in France, but that’s how the brothers are: ambitious and proud.

Surprisingly for some, they reached their goal. Mickaël qualified first, finishing 7th at the 2019 Climbing World Cup in August and Bassa qualified through the Olympic Qualifier Tournament in Tournefeuille, France, in late November.

“When Mickaël qualified, it was a relief for me,” explained Bassa to “From then on, I just had to think about myself. It is special because we are brothers, we are very close, there is no competition between us, we always support each other.”

Family dream

Bassa’s qualification is a moment Mickaël won’t forget either. “It was a magical moment. We managed something that only the two of us and our family believed in. We fought hard for that.”

Bassa, the oldest of the two brothers, started climbing through a school programme when he was 15. Naturally, Mickaël, who is six years younger, followed in his footsteps. They developed their own training methodology, initially based on power.

“We set some climbing holds on a wooden 1m x 3m board and we were racing without using our feet. We also attached some electrodes to ourselves and did some weighted pull-ups. Plenty of things that nobody was doing at the time because it was kind of the opposite of climbing ethics. Nowadays, everybody is doing it!” says Bassa.

One of the main reasons they want to reach the highest level is to repay the support they received from their family, including their climbing family. “Our parents always supported us, in everything we wanted to do. They have always been here for us. We did some silly things at some points, like every kid, but climbing was always here to reframe us, to show us the right way. The people we worked with when we trained were fair, kind and straight with us. Our parents are also like that. They always helped us to find our way,” remembers Bassa.

Late bloomers 

It was a long time before the brothers were selected for the French national team (Bassa in 2011, Mickaël in 2014), but slowly the work paid off and they started to achieve the results they wanted. Bassa specialised in Speed, becoming national champion and beating the French record in a time of 5”52, before winning silver at the 2018 world championships and topping the world rankings in 2018 and 2019. 

“Speed has been a second life for me. I found myself by repeating my efforts over and over. When it comes to Speed, the more you repeat the same thing, the stronger you get. From the moment I started, I’ve had this crazy dream of becoming the best in the world.” 

Mickaël, who is less powerful and more technical, excels in Bouldering, and also became national champion in 2018. “I love the diversity of training in Bouldering, it’s always changing. There are many things to work on, it’s always new, I love it. “

Now the road to Tokyo will be a bit longer, with the Games being postponed for a year and the current confinement period changing their training conditions. It’s a situation that does not really bother them. Mickaël is based in Voiron in the French Alps while Bassa is in New Caledonia. They are in touch every day.

Kick in the behind

“We are back to basics," says Mickaël. “It’s good to change our methods, to kick ourselves in the behind in order to train at home and maximise our warm ups. Those things are harder to do at home than at the climbing gym, so you have to push yourself to get going and when you manage to do it, the impact is strong.”

“The Mawem brothers love to train, so one more year... we’ll take it,” laughs Mickaël. “For me, it was actually good news. For two years, many decisions were being taken about the rules and we couldn’t move forward calmly. Now, we have one year to train solely for the Games and we can focus on that,” adds Bassa.

Asked what are their expectations of Tokyo 2020, Bassa said: “My goal is to reach the final. After that, everything is possible. I would also like to set the first Olympic Speed record.”

“My goal is the gold medal, my versatility allows me to aim for it,” explains Mickaël. “I’m training for that. And now that we have one more year, it’s even better. We will work on plenty of things. On holding for instance. I’m one of the best technically and physically, but I want to be even better. I’ll try to progress to achieve first place or at least secure a podium. You don’t say no to an Olympic podium!”

Together in Tokyo

One advantage they will undoubtedly have is being together in Tokyo. Contrary to most of the athletes attending the Games, they will not go there as competitors. And practically speaking, they will share daily life together. “At the Games, it’s going to be cooler. We won’t have to deal with being with someone else. We will be together during our daily routine, and everything will be perfect, as usual,” states Bassa. 

“I want to see my brother win and he wants to see me win. If both of us win, fantastic. But If only one of us wins, both of us have won. Being together at the Games, just the two of us representing France on the men’s side, it’s crazy. We will go to Japan to adapt two or three weeks before the Games. There will be no pressure,” says Mickaël.

From Bassa’s perspective, it will be difficult to achieve a podium finish as he is less versatile than Mickaël. But at the Olympic Games, nothing is predictable. “I want to reach the final and then everything can happen.”

His younger brother agrees, knowing what he is capable of: “He can go over his limit. Four years ago he could do six runs at full intensity. Today, he can do 50. They might not be perfect, but at least they're at full intensity,” he says, firmly convinced of his ability.

The Mawem brand

The “Mawem brothers”, who with over 82 000 followers on Instagram have practically become a brand of their own, can definitely achieve great things in Tokyo. The fact they are now aged 29 and 35 is certainly not something that worries them.  

“What characterises us is perseverance. We started from a low point. Our parents are not climbers. We started from nothing and we fought. We stuck to our methodology: strength. Since the beginning, including in our cellar, we worked on strength, strength, strength…. We stuck to it and that’s how we managed to reach the elite level”, explains Bassa.

“A lot of people ask why we are still around. Bassa is 35 and I’m 29. We saw some athletes stop earlier, because it’s tough to hold on for so many years. But we started later and we’re still here. It’s just thanks to… I can’t find the word. Our determination. Yes, our determination,” concludes Mickaël.


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