The ability to overcome obstacles was a skill that Bassa and Mickaël Mawem learned at an early age.
The French brothers, known as Les Frères Mawem, are now poster boys of the climbing world – effortlessly gliding up walls like Gallic Spider-Men to win awards and acclaim one moment, overseeing a burgeoning new business empire the next.
But it wasn't always like this; before, life was more of an uphill struggle. Bassa and Mickaël's biological father was an often-absent legionnaire (a member of the fearsome French Foreign Legion army corps), mostly leaving their mother to bring the two boys up alone – and, at the same time, making for a nomadic childhood.
‘We've come a long way,’ says Bassa, the older of the strikingly muscular siblings. ‘We're living our dreams and we're thankful for that every day.’
Bassa, who's 37, was born in French Guiana, a tropical French territory on the north-east coast of South America. The family then moved to Nîmes, a small city in the south of France, where Mickaël, now 31, arrived into the world. A stint in Cameroon also followed after their parents divorced, but the brothers finally settled in Alsace, a region in north-east France, when their mother remarried.
It was there, in the city of Colmar, that the 15-year-old Bassa first stumbled across the world of climbing, during a lunchtime sports session as a student at the National Union of School Sports.
‘I had a friend who suggested that I try climbing,’ says Bassa. ‘I went with him one day and I liked it a lot. The very next day I registered with the club.’
Unlike many other Olympians who began to climb practically as toddlers, he was a late starter. But climbing quickly took a hold of Bassa and, two months later, he'd already taken part in his first competition. Soon, his younger brother Mickaël, after turning 11, was following in his footholds.
Yet the family was far from well-off, so the boys had to make do with what they could. They set up a rudimentary climbing wall in their cellar at home so they could train every day. Given the lack of space, there weren't any footholds, so the brothers had to do footless circuits of 30 to 50 movements – a serious feat of endurance.
‘We didn't have much as a family, so we just used what was available to us,’ says Mickaël. ‘But our set-up meant we had to climb without our feet; we could use only our hands. I think that's why we have such strong upper bodies.’
On the up
That hard work paid off. The result is that the brothers, who are now ambassadors for French climbing, have a rapid, explosive style. Bassa joined the French national team in 2011 and has since won 11 medals, becoming a six-time speed winner in the French Climbing Championships and two-time speed winner in the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Climbing World Cup. He also has one of the fastest times in history: 5.45 seconds to climb 15 meters. Mickaël, with plenty of years ahead of him, has already won the title of bouldering champion at the IFSC Climbing European Championships, in 2019.
However, until 2019, the brothers had never competed against one another in an international event due to their different specialisms: Bassa's is speed (two climbers race each other up a 15-meter-high wall, set at a 95-degree angle) and Mickaël's bouldering (climbing as many difficult, fixed routes as possible in four minutes). The Olympics requires both specialisms, as well as a third – lead – in which climbers must ascend as high as possible on walls up to 45 meters under timed conditions.
During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which took place in 2021, the first ever to include climbing, Mickaël and Bassa occupied both spots on the French male national team. Mickaël took fifth place worldwide and, although Bassa couldn't compete in the finals due to a bicep injury, he'd already bagged the Olympic record for speed climbing.
It's been a remarkable ascent for the Mawems and, as they've reached the summit of the sport, opportunity stretches across the horizon. In September 2021, a month after the Tokyo Olympics, the brothers realized a long-held dream and opened up a climbing center, which has bouldering, difficulty and speed walls, in their hometown of Colmar.
‘We did a world tour, and this is a return home,’ says Mickaël. ‘It's where we began. We've always said that we'd open our own wall one day. We talked about it a lot. And we're proud to actually do it.’
Grasping onto the recent rise in interest in indoor climbing, the climbing center is both a shrewd, forward-looking business investment and their training hub for the 2024 Olympics, which will take place in Paris.
‘We built ourselves well as athletes,’ says Bassa. ‘But that's not enough. Today, if you're an Olympic athlete, you don't earn [enough] to survive on that alone. We want to live properly in the future, to have a career as entrepreneurs.’
Open to all
Their brand, Les Frères Mawem, has been built up over time. The pair's impressive 160,000 Instagram followers attest to that ability to develop an image. The somewhat DIY attitude from those early days remains and perhaps even burnishes it; whereas fellow climbers have strict, sports-science-led regimens, the Mawem brothers prefer pull-up contests to stretching. Bassa even took part in the first French Ninja Warrior, a popular TV show that pits contestants against physical challenges – showing the kind of crossover appeal that few Olympians have.
It's certainly no stroll in the park, though, or even a hike in the French Alps. The pair work 15 or 16 hours a day, Monday to Saturday, both as athletes and business owners – with 5am starts common. Bassa's job is mainly to manage the climbing wall and develop activities in the gyms, while Mickaël takes care of the communication and development of the brand, which also includes a range of merchandise. Nutrition is crucial, too: they rarely eat bread, sugar, pasta, potatoes or – most difficult of all for Frenchmen – charcuterie. On top of that, Bassa is a father.
‘This job gives us a lot of pleasure and also a lot of pain,’ says Bassa. ‘But it's our passion, so it's not so much work for us.’
That fierce dedication and determination, they say, is perhaps inherited from their stoic father. ‘It's true – he taught us faith and discipline,’ says Mickaël.
Yet what's also driving their efforts is a desire to make the climbing industry a more accessible, diverse and open place. The Mawems were the only black climbers to participate in the Tokyo Olympics – and they're two of only a handful of black athletes performing at the elite level of the sport.
The brothers have spoken out about racism they've experienced in their everyday lives: Mickaël has said he's frequently stopped by police and interrogated for no reason, only to be released when he reveals he's an Olympic athlete. ‘It's not right, but it's slowly improving,’ he says.
That's why the brothers see such potential in the democratic freedom of the climbing space: everyone, they argue, is at the same level. ‘You can climb in the same room with someone of a different skill set, with a world champion – it doesn't matter,’ says Bassa. ‘In our development, we grew up with people who helped us grow up. Now we want to reciprocate. We want young people to develop and to help them, too.’
Access to climbing facilities remains difficult, however, especially for city dwellers. In Paris, there are very few mountains and cliffs and even just a few years ago there were only two training centers for professionals or dedicated amateurs in the whole of the country: one in Fontainebleau and the other in Voiron, near Grenoble. In 2006, Bassa had to leave the Alsace region and travel hundreds of miles to the city of Clermont-Ferrand to reach decent facilities – and later, he had to move to Paris to be able to both work and do high-level training.
‘Climbing has evolved a lot,’ says Bassa. ‘It's easier and easier to climb. It's more accessible. But there's still a lot to do. Climbing is something to be done only in the mountains for many people. But we have to change that idea.’
Bassa speaks passionately about opening up climbing to those with disabilities. The team is working on a process to allow disabled visitors to the Colmar center to use the facilities completely autonomously. ‘It's totally possible,’ he says. ‘We want to prove that anyone can do this. We came from nothing.’
The Mawem brothers are hoping for one final flourish together when the Olympics come to Paris in 2024. ‘Paris is going to be our last objective,’ says Bassa. ‘We'll try our hardest to qualify. It’s à la maison – at home – for us, so that would be so beautiful. We could never have a more important competition than this.’
But, after that, it'll be the start of a new era for the Mawems. The brothers say that following the opening of their climbing center in Colmar, they hope to open up two other walls in Alsace, and, eventually, one in almost every major French city, including Paris, Lille, Rennes, Bordeaux and Marseille. The world, it seems, is in their powerful, well-worn palms. ‘This is only the beginning,’ says Mickaël.
By Peter Yeung