TOKYO, July 29 (Reuters) - Bassa Mawem was a 15-year-old living in the Alsace region of northeast France when one day a friend invited him to check out the climbing wall at school.
Instantly hooked, Mawem joined the climbing club and his brother Mickael, five years his junior, followed in his footholds soon afterwards.
Some two decades later, Les Freres Mawem - Mawem Brothers - will compete against each other when climbing makes its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games on Aug. 3.
"It's crazy to be here," Mickael told Reuters from Kurayoshi where the brothers are preparing for Tokyo.
"It's like a scientist who says 'I'll never go to the moon, it's too complicated, even if I gave it everything I have, I just wouldn't make it'. We have that chance so it's just huge."
With a small field of 20 competitors, both the brothers qualifying was far from guaranteed.
For a start, the Olympics event requires climbers to master three disciplines - speed, bouldering and lead - to contend for a single gold medal.
Speed climbing sees two athletes racing up a 15-metre wall. In bouldering, competitors must use problem-solving skills to scale a fixed route, while in lead, they must compete to see who can climb the highest within a specific time frame.
Mickael, a strong all-rounder, qualified for the Games first at the World Championships in August 2019.
But Bassa, a speed specialist, needed more competitions to qualify for the only other spot available to France and secured his berth in Toulouse later that year.
"It was a really tough year - we really needed to go until the end with it, believe until the end in it and not let go," said 36-year-old Bassa, who will be the oldest contender in Tokyo.
The brothers, who say there is no rivalry between them, are dreaming for a shared podium finish but concede it may be a long shot given their differing skillsets.
A medal for one would be a medal for the other, Mickael said.
"With every scenario, apart from the one where none of us achieves anything, we'll be winners. And if we both lose, we'll cry together, between brothers."
Bassa added: "Being the two of us leaves very little space for easing off. Whenever there's one of us that eases off, the other is there to say 'no, training is tough, you need to suffer and that's what you need to do'."
As Black athletes, the brothers have faced their fair share of discrimination. But Mickael said climbing had given them a chance to escape the prejudice they endured in childhood.
"In sports, we don't feel any differences with athletes ... Cultural differences yes, because we're not all the same."
For now, the brothers are looking forward to their time in the spotlight while also keeping an eye on the next Olympics in Paris in 2024.
"I hope after Tokyo ... the sport will become more professional thanks to more money and more sponsors, because we clearly had it tough making a living from climbing," Bassa said.
"We're happy we can live off it and we'll be able to do that until at least 2024 and we hope that for the future generations, things will be simpler."
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