SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Members of Russian protest group Pussy Riot crashed the Sochi Olympic party on Tuesday when they were detained at a police station, briefly diverting the world’s gaze from snowboarders and skiers who braved thick fog, rain and snow to race.
Five group members were among those held for around three hours at a police station in the Adler district of Sochi, not far from the Olympic Park where Russia is hosting its first Winter Games.
Among them were Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, freed from prison less than two months ago under an amnesty, having been given two-year jail terms for hooliganism that Western governments condemned as disproportionate.
Their detention in Sochi during the February 7-23 Olympics, and the huge media interest it generated, will be an unwelcome development for President Vladimir Putin, whose legacy rests in part on staging a problem-free Games.
Until now there has been little sign of dissent against Putin or the huge cost of hosting the Games, and the Pussy Riot incident may prove to be a short-term distraction from sporting thrills and spills that have captivated a global audience.
But the five women put the focus back on Russia’s human rights record, after legislation banning the promotion of homosexuality among minors attracted widespread criticism in the buildup to the Olympics.
“There are so many violations of human rights,” said one released Pussy Riot member, who did not give her name and was unidentifiable behind a brightly colored balaclava which all of the five freed women wore.
“You know, probably it’s a sporting event, but why are members of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) saying that Putin is a democrat? It’s clear it’s not a sporting event, it’s a political event.”
Tolokonnikova said police had used violence during questioning in the police station.
Sochi police said the women were questioned in connection with a theft in a hotel where they were staying and had no further claims against them.
The women were in Sochi to record a musical film called “Putin will teach you to love the motherland.”
Back in the sporting arena, Norway continued their impressive Games with two more golds, short track speed skating produced more of its usual controversies and Netherlands continued to dominant the speed skating.
After two days of delays and postponements due to fog and rain, organizers will have been delighted to get back on schedule as Frenchman Pierre Vaultier won the men’s snowboard cross in a race originally due to be run on Monday.
In a close final Vaultier edged out Russian Nikolay Olyunin.
However, medical staff were again in action as Italian athlete Omar Visintin was carried off on a stretcher, the latest in a series of injuries at the Extreme Park.
It was even tighter in the men’s biathlon when Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen claimed his third Olympic title and denied France’s Martin Fourcade a golden Sochi hat-trick in a photo finish to the 15km mass start.
Tina Maze won her second gold medal, in the giant slalom, and this time did not have to share it as she did in the downhill last week which produced an unprecedented tie.
The Slovenian made the most of starting first in slippery conditions in the first run, but it came down to a few hundredths of seconds in the end, as she just edged out Anna Fenninger of Austria.
Among those coming in behind them was violin virtuoso Vanessa Mae representing Thailand. Racing under the name Vanessa Vanakorn, she finished 50.10 seconds behind Maze after two descents.
“It’s so cool. You’ve got the elite skiers of the world and then you’ve got some mad old woman like me trying to make it down,” Mae said.
“I think it’s great the Olympics is here - it gives you the chance to try something new later in life. If you do everything when you’re young, you leave no fun until the end.”
There was a second gold for Norway in the Nordic Combined large hill thanks to Joergen Graabak, who, despite finishing sixth on the ski jump section, made up a 42 second deficit in the 10km cross country section to pip compatriot Magnus Moan.
South Korea triumphed in the women’s short track 3,000m relay, where China crossed the line second but were disqualified.
It went some way to making amends for 2010 - when the Koreans were disqualified after finishing first - by taking gold and keeping it. China inherited the gold that time, but it was their turn to fall foul of the judges in a sport where disqualifications are commonplace.
In the fourth Dutch medals clean sweep in speed skating, Jorrit Bergsma won the men’s 10,000 meters title in an Olympic record time, beating favorite Sven Kramer. Four years ago Kramer crossed the line first but was disqualified after leaving his lane at the wrong time.
In the final medal event, held under floodlights, American David Wise shone out in a late Sochi snowstorm to become the first men’s freestyle skiing halfpipe Olympic champion.
Even then the drama was not over.
Showman figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko, who retired from the sport after an injury prevented him from competing in the men’s individual event in Sochi days after helping Russia take team gold, announced on state television that he may yet try to compete in the 2018 Winter Games.
“If need be, I’ll have another 10 operations... I‘m not ruling out that I’ll go for a fifth Olympic Games,” he said.
After 67 of the Games’ 98 events, Germany lead the medals table with eight golds, one more than Norway and two more than the Netherlands and the United States. Russia, Switzerland and, surprisingly, Belarus, all have five.
For most Russians, the big contest of the day was at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome, where the hosts beat Norway 4-0 in a qualification playoff in men’s ice hockey.
Canada and the United States are fancied above Russia, but a gold for the host nation in a final being played just hours before the closing ceremony on Sunday would provide the fairytale end to the Sochi Games.
However, whether future Games will continue to attract the cream of the sport remains in doubt.
Rene Fasel, head of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association chief Donald Fehr faced the media in Sochi but showed few signs of reaching an agreement that would see the NHL release players for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“Yes, Rene would love for Don and I to say today that we are coming but he knows that’s not the case,” said Bettman. “This is the fifth time we have participated in the Olympic tournament - where we are in this process should not be a shock to anybody.”
The NHL has refused to make a long-term commitment to the Games and indications are that team owners no longer believe the exposure they gain from competing is worth shutting the league down for two weeks mid-season and handing players to the IOC.
Additional reporting by the Reuters Olympic team in Sochi and Rosa Khutor and by Ian Bateson. Editing by Mitch Phillips