By Justin Palmer
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Alexander Tretiakov sealed Russia's first Olympic gold in skeleton on Saturday when he comfortably held off main rival Martins Dukurs, leaving Latvia still waiting for a first Winter Games champion.
The 28-year-old, dubbed the "Russian Rocket," thrilled an expectant and noisy crowd at the Sanki Sliding Centre by easing to victory with a combined time of 3.44.49 for his four slides, a winning margin of 0.81 seconds.
Dukurs, pipped to gold by seven hundredths of a second by Canadian Jon Montgomery in Vancouver four years ago when Tretiakov claimed bronze, had to settle for silver again, with American Matt Antoine completing the podium.
Tretiakov said it had been easier to focus because he had asked his family not to travel from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia.
"I think they were watching at home and worrying, suffering. But still it's much easier to watch on TV than to be here. It's calmer for me and easier for them."
Tretiakov, whose wife and sister have also competed in skeleton, was the only slider to dip under 56 seconds over the two days of competition, laying a platform for gold with a track record 55.95 to start proceedings.
"To perform at home in an Olympics is easier because everyone's helping and the supporters are all behind you," he said.
"At the same time it's a gigantic responsibility. Such a load has fallen from my shoulders, it's such a relief. All the emotion suddenly came out at the end and I felt lightness and joy."
Amid wild cheers, blaring horns, flag waving and chants of 'Rossiya', the bearded Tretiakov was calmness personified as he set about protecting his first-day lead of just over half a second.
Dukurs, the dominant slider over the past few seasons with five successive World Cup titles to his name, reduced the Russian's lead by the merest fraction on the third slide but world champion Tretiakov kept calm and increased his advantage on the final run.
The Latvian conceded he had been beaten by the better slider.
"In general I am very satisfied with all four runs. But competitors do exist, and you cannot know what their level will be," he said. "Alexander was just better today."
The silver medalist's disappointment was compounded by his older brother Tomass missing out on the podium again - finishing fourth, as he had done four years ago.
"There was a moment when I saw that he was fourth, I thought maybe I should give him a way to finish with a medal because he has earned it, no matter what people would have said to me after," Martins said. "It was painful for me."
An even bigger hard luck story belonged to Antoine's best friend John Daly, however. The American, 17th at the 2010 Olympics, started his final run in fourth place but blew his medal chances when he made a complete hash of the start with his sled popping out of the track's grooves at the top of the run.
"I knew I had to go for it," he lamented after finishing 15th. "So I went for it and it bit me...the blame is totally on me.
"I really just wish I had one more shot at that last run. Now I have to wait four more years."
(Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan, editing by Peter Rutherford/Mitch Phillips)