BELGRADE, Serbia: Milorad Cavic, suspended from the European swimming championships for wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "Kosovo is Serbia," was given a rousing reception Saturday upon his return to his homeland.
Cavic was greeted by hundreds of fans and met with Serbian nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who called the swimmer a "hero."
The 23-year-old Cavic was expelled from the championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands, for wearing the T-shirt as he collected his gold medal for winning the 50-meter butterfly on Wednesday.
The European swimming league ruled it a political slogan a reference to Kosovo's controversial declaration of independence from Serbia on Feb. 17 and ejected the American-born swimmer.
"I had no political intentions," Cavic said Saturday in a news conference broadcast live on state TV. "I had to help my people knowing it could be a big risk for my swimming career. I'm proud of what I did."
After the incident, Cavic became an inspiration among Serbs who object to losing Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian-dominated territory which many Serbs consider the historic cradle of their nation.
Kosovo's independence has been recognized by the United States and most European Union nations.
Cavic, who was born in Anaheim, California, to Serb parents and trains in Florida, said he was just trying to send "positive energy" to the country he represents.
He said he made up his mind to wear the T-shirt with the text in Cyrillic two weeks before the event.
"I had to do it to help the (Kosovo Serbs), knowing how hard it is for them there," Cavic said.
Because of the expulsion, Cavic missed Saturday's 100 butterfly, in which he was one of the favorites.
"I'm really sorry I missed that race. I trained very hard for it," Cavic said.