Australia’s secret weapon in at the Tokyo Olympics – good coffee of course

·4 min read

Team Australia have had an upbeat start to their Tokyo 2020 campaign. With nine gold medals as of Friday lunchtime, they have already surpassed their overall Rio haul of five years ago – with more than a week of competition still to go. There are many explanations for this success: exceptional individual performance, good fortune, ample funding, careful planning. But there is another factor driving the feel-good atmosphere in Australia’s Olympic village: good coffee.

The Australian Olympic Committee had meticulously planned every aspect of the nation’s participation in Tokyo, and double-downed on the tiniest details when Covid disrupted the Games last year. That planning extended to organising a coffee cart in the Australian section of the Olympic village, to ensure athletes could enjoy a taste of home in Tokyo. But even the AOC’s planners were surprised by the serendipity when one of the baristas arrived.

Related: Unmissable moments of Australia’s Olympians – in pictures

Elliot Johnson, a Melbourne coffee fanatic who has been based in Japan for almost five years, was an apt – if coincidental – choice for one of the most important jobs in the village. After stints at Breakfast Thieves in Fitzroy and Little Rogue in Melbourne’s CBD, Johnson relocated to Japan in late 2016. He has been making coffee in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main island, before heading to Tokyo when the Olympic assignment arose.

“The company that is in charge of the coffee cart – the owner of the Japanese branch has been a mate of mine [since I moved here],” Johnson says. “He sent me a message a few months back saying would you be interested in working at the Olympics in the Aussie village? It really flowed on from there.”

Johnson’s role in the village may have come about by accident, but the Melbourne barista has been embraced by the Australian team. “[He does] very good coffee,” says Susie O’Neill, former Olympic swimmer and deputy chef de mission for the AOC in Tokyo. O’Neill says she is particularly partial to a double-shot soy cappuccino.

The barista, and his colleague, have been making 600 coffees each day, from 6.30am onwards, using three Linea Mini machines. “We’re really pumping them with 600 coffees – they’re feeling the heat,” he says. Australian athletes are enjoying a blend of beans from Papua New Guinea and Brazil, roasted locally not far away the village. “It has a lot of range,” Johnson says of the blend. “An espresso tastes great, a lot of richness.” The most popular order among the athletes is a strong flat white.

But despite serving Australia’s gold medal winning heroes every day, Johnson says he does not feel overawed. “Not as much as I maybe should feel,” he says. “I only recognise a few of the athletes – it’s a pretty calm environment. There are a lot of orders in the morning and it can be a bit of a wait sometimes. But everyone is just happy to have a bit of home with them. I think I probably felt more pressure back in Melbourne than I do at the Olympics.”

The AOC’s McNeill says the coffee cart is just one part of a holistic strategy to ensure the Australian team feel at home and can avoid contact with athletes from other nations (and hence minimise Covid risk). “The nutrition area they have in the village so the athletes don’t have to go to the dining hall all the time, the recovery centre, the gymnasium right where we are staying – it’s really quite contained, the team doesn’t have to go out much in the village,” she says.

But speak to any Australian athlete this week and it is evident that the coffee cart has a special place in their hearts. Such is Johnson’s popularity that he has been given an official team uniform. “Everyone has been so welcoming,” he says. Each morning athletes from the Matildas, the Boomers, the medal-winning Dolphins and more line up for their daily brew (or two). If Johnson is keeping them all happy, he must be doing something right.

“Everyone is just really excited to have some good coffee,” he says. “I feel like me and my colleague – even if it’s not just coffee, we’re providing a bit of a break from what I imagine is a very stressful time, an exciting but scary time for the athletes.”

But Australia’s Olympians are not the only ones benefiting from the familiarity that good coffee brings. “I haven’t been able to get back to Melbourne for a couple of years now,” Johnson says. “I understand that a lot of the athletes are based overseas and they’re only just gathering for the first time. It’s a taste of home, not just for me but for everyone. It’s a really nice sense of community.”

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