Olympic silver medalist Milorad Čavić would not have achieved such success under the cash-strapped Serbian sports system, the American-born Serb told W!LDRooSTeR. “For everything I have in my life I have to thank the United States,’ he said. “I remember some people tried to insult me by saying I’m an American. I said, yeah and I’m not ashamed of that. That doesn’t upset me.”
Born in Southern California, Čavić spent most of his life in the United States. “I grew up with many Serbs,’ he said. “As kids in the diaspora where we were very nationalistic. I love this country, even though there are a lot of reasons to not be so proud of it. When I touch down into Nikola Tesla airport I just feel that there is something right and I feel at home. I love it and I can’t explain it. Throughout my life in sports, if something feels so right it can’t be wrong.”
While growing up in America, Čavić was able to enjoy the benefits of the university scholarship programme for promising athletes. In Serbia, this route would not have been an option for him. “I don’t think I would have had the conditions to train to begin with,’ said Čavić, over drinks in a Belgrade restaurant. “This country did not have the finances and they were not able to build more pools. Then if they did, they weren’t able to sustain them. Even if they could sustain them, they couldn’t heat them. It was just too expensive. Under those conditions, I don’t believe I would have been successful in Serbia.
“Most of the pools, especially during the wars and the bombings, were closed. I remember Anna Ivanović telling me that she trained in an empty swimming pool for some time during the bombings. For half of her training she would be hitting the ball up the slope and for the other half she would be hitting it down. Then some pools were used for shot putters. Right up until two or three years ago, shot putters were using one of our pools.”
Čavić, now aged 27, recognises the opportunities he was given by the American education system and he is a keen believer in taking their best methods and applying them in Serbia. For some, though, the best option is to travel overseas. “I am a strong advocate of athletes in every sport in Serbia going to the United States,’ said Čavić. “Not because I am an American but because they will pay for your schooling and you can train in world class facilities and conditions that they really never had here. Then after they finish uni they will have an education and they can come back here and compete professionally, if they are ready.”
Now in Belgrade, Čavić maintains ties with the Serb diaspora in the US, where his parents still live. “I do have connections with friends in the United States,’ he said. “I grew up south of LA and there were a lot of Serbs there. We keep in touch, because these were people I grew up with, but I haven’t been back to LA in about a year and a half. The only thing that really ties me to my hometown in Orange County is my family. But I don’t get to see them very often.
“I spoke to the daughter of Vlade Divac and she asked if I missed LA. I said, yeah, I miss the weather and the beach, but look, you’re just starting high school and when that’s over everyone will go their own way. When you start uni, everyone will go even further. Life changes and you move on.”
Now based in Belgrade, Čavić fondly recalls the pull of Serbia. “As a child the greatest thing in the world was to come to Serbia,’ he said. “This place is like Disneyland for us, it’s fantastic. We love it here. I was lucky enough to find a way to live here, with the same level that I was living in the United States. But the sad thing is that most of them who did come out and try to invest their money and realise their dream of living here in Serbia, they were disappointed. They realised that business is not so black and white here. You have to know people and you have to have a lot of money to market it. It is tough here.
“I am still in touch with them and they are really jealous of the fact that things are looking up for me. But it is not something that every person can do. Most of them have really good educations but they don’t maybe have the connections that they need to find a good job here.”
Coming from an immigrant background and growing up in America, Čavić has often had to face questions of identity. “They ask me very often what I consider myself, because I have dual nationality,’ he said. “What I am is a Serb. Who I am is an American. What defines who I am is what I grew up with and what I believe is right and wrong, my value system. What is normal and what is not normal. Every day I see things which I completely think are just wrong, but here everyone just laughs and says, ‘what do you expect, this is Serbia’. That is completely normal here.
“Here, to see two homosexual men kissing is the worst possible thing in the world. It is a reason to fight and they do. Whereas it doesn’t bother me at all. I wouldn’t look twice. I spent five years in San Francisco, the gay capital of the States, if not the World, and so it is just something so normal for me. That is because of who I am. It is something I cannot explain here. They see things differently than I do. I do believe I am fortunate to think the way I think. If they say something but don’t see it is clearly wrong, then that is their problem.
“People don’t understand me, they don’t quite understand why I think the way I think. It doesn’t make them bad people. I’m just different. If you like it, great, but if you don’t, I’m sorry. I sometimes wish people would see things my way. Not just to have my political views but to have my value system. People here feel so powerless, when in fact they do have the power. Democracy is built on the foundation that you as a political leader are there because we put you there. If we don’t like you and if we don’t like your decision, we can change it.”
Čavićis quick to offer his opinion on the current global crisis. “As long as Europe is in crisis and Serbia is outside of the European Union, it will be tough,’ he said. “I studied political economics and so I do have quite a good understanding of what is going on with the economic crisis and the instability of the Euro. As long as the economy is down it is not going to be great.
“Everything here is 30-40% more expensive as a result of being outside the European Union. It is a mess. I have an English car, a Land Rover Discovery 4. I thought about buying the same car in the United States, where it was $52,000. Here I paid €68,000. This was a year ago when the rate was better so, in essence I paid $90,000 when I could have imported it and driven on US plates. But I would have had trouble leaving the country and it was too much trouble with insurance.”
Continuing on the subject of money, Čavić raises an example of what he sees as questionable spending priorities by the Serbian government. “During this crisis, this country paid $40million for a new private jet just so the head politicians of this country can fly around,’ he said. “It is so much more cost effective to fly commercial airlines, as I have heard other politicians do, even in England. That is fantastic. But to spend that money on a private jet…”
No such issues of financing for Čavić, as he explained: “I have state sponsorship and through my company Arena who have really taken care of me. Then I have some donors who donate to me a very solid sum of money per month, which helps me pay for everything I need. Plus I have the Olympic committee behind me, so I am doing quite well. I cannot complain.”