By Martyn Herman | Aug 01, 2012 10:41 AM EDT
LONDON (Reuters) - A scan through the Olympic record books might lead you to believe that Slovaks are born to paddle canoes, South Koreans to fire arrows and the Chinese to tumble off diving boards or over gymnastics apparatus.
That assumption may be over-simplifying the facts but history does seem to indicate that where you are born has a major influence on which sporting path you are more likely to follow, even if it is not all the way to Olympic gold.
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Twins Pavel and Peter Hochschorner have had two stations named after them on a special Olympics-themed London Underground map to recognize their three gold medals in the men's slalom C-2 event.
Unless they boarded a Piccadilly Line train in rush hour carrying their canoe, they would hardly get a second glance, such is the obscure nature of the sport in Britain.
However, they would get an entirely different reception back home in Slovakia, a small nation with a huge appetite for white water medals since Michal Martikan won gold in Atlanta 16 years ago.
Children growing up in the towns and villages of Slovakia are equally as likely to wish to emulate Hochschorner, Martikan or twice Olympic champion Elena Kaliska as they are to be the next Lionel Messi or Serena Williams.
Although disappointing on a personal level, Martikan's bronze in the men's slalom C-1 on Tuesday was Slovakia's 22nd Olympic medal since splitting from the Czech Republic and the nation's 14th in canoeing.
For other nations, their Olympic specialties lie elsewhere.
The Caribbean islands have a rich gene pool when it comes to sprinters with 100m and 200m Olympic champion and world record holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica the latest phenomenon.
Britain has always been strong in rowing, sailing and over the past three Olympics has become a force in track and road cycling, with some harshly suggesting the country that is hosting the latest Games performs better sitting down.
Hungary have won 15 men's gold medals at water polo, France and Italy have a pedigree in fencing and the Balkan nations are the major forces in the handball arena.
Finns have a propensity to throw the javelin a long way while, ever since Fidel Castro took an interest, Cubans have shone in the amateur boxing ring, even if their domination has waned since taking five gold medals home from Athens in 2004.
Some of the trends are obvious, others curious.
When not obsessing over soccer, Brazilians love nothing more than a game of volleyball, as any visitor to Rio de Janeiro will tell you.
In Beijing, Brazil won the women's indoor volleyball, were runners-up in the men's and had a silver and bronze in the men's beach volleyball - a haul they hope to match in London.
Juliana Felisberta and her partner Larissa Franca are the reigning beach volleyball world champions and gold medal favorites at Horseguards Parade in central London.
"I think because in Brazil the weather is perfect," she told Reuters. "The people love to play beach volleyball and volleyball. It's not expensive, you only need a ball and friends. It's a passion."
Likewise, it does not take a rocket scientist to work out why Ethiopia and Kenya shine in middle and long distance running.
The high-altitude training camps of the Rift Valley are the perfect breeding ground for 800, 1,500, 5000 and 10,000m runners. Kenyans Paul Tergat, Wilson Kipketer and current 800m world champion David Rudisha as well as Ethiopian greats Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele are proof of that.
Sometimes the reasons are less clear, however.
Slovakia has abundant terrain for canoeing but so do many other countries around the world.
Yet Slovakia has become the leading force in the sport since Martikan won the country's first gold medal at the age of 17. In the last three Olympics before London, the country won half the gold medals on offer.
"Generally the sport is not as popular as it is successful. The success is down to the work of people who love the sport," Peter Hochschorner told Reuters, citing Martikan's breakthrough as the catalyst for a generation of paddlers.
South Korea's archery expertise could be put down to centuries' old tradition.
However, after the country's women claimed a seventh consecutive Olympic team gold on Sunday with victory over China, another curious explanation emerged.
According to one theory, South Korea's women have "kimchi fingers", developed after generations of preparing the dish based on hot pepper paste applied to cabbage leaves.
"South Korean women have more sensitive hands than any other women in the world," said Baek Woong-gi, an archery coach for the Korean national team.
"Our women archers have excellent feeling with their fingers. They know whether they shot well or not immediately after the arrow leaves their fingers."
History plays a role. France developed the 'fleuret' or foil, as a training weapon for dueling in the 17th Century, and later the face mask which turned it into a modern sport in which France has consistently collected medals.
And comfort is important too. Hungary's water polo coach Denes Kemeny says his country's hot-water springs enabled the sport to be played year-round before the days of heated pools.
Success can also breed more success.
When Jason Queally won the men's track cycling time trial gold in Sydney 2000, it was only Britain's second track medal at the Olympics in 76 years.
Since then, with huge amounts of funding and an elite programme that is the envy of the world, they have bagged 10 more and crowned everything last month with Bradley Wiggins' Tour de France win, a first for a British cyclist.
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