Five time world champion and two time Olympics gold medallist Lin Dan of China announced his retirement from badminton, news agency Xinhua reported on Saturday.

“From 2000 to 2020, after 20 years, I have to say goodbye to the national team. It is very difficult to speak it out,” the 36-year-old announced on social media platform Weibo.

There had been speculations over Dan’s imminent retirement ever since it was clear that the 36-year-old would struggle to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He had slipped to 19 in the world ranking and suffered nine opening-round exits in 2019. According to the rules, only two players from any country can qualify for the Games and Shi Yuqi and Chen Long are way ahead of him.

The report said that Dan had submitted a formal retirement application a few days ago. “Taking into consideration Lin’s personal preference and his current situation, the Chinese badminton national team agreed Lin’s retirement,” a Chinese badminton association official was quoted as saying.

Dominant on court, a rebel off it: Lin Dan will be remembered as badminton’s biggest superstar

The left-handed shuttler is one of the most successful players ever on the international circuit, having completed a hat-trick of world titles between 2006-09 and winning gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics.

The end of Lin’s glorious career comes just over a year after the retirement of his great rival and friend, the Malaysian star Lee Chong Wei.

The duo reigned over the sport for more than a decade and have only relinquished that hold in recent years as their powers waned.

End of an era: Tributes pour in on Twitter as badminton legend Lin Dan announces retirement

Lin, who had something of a “bad boy” reputation during his younger days and has several tattoos, ends with 666 singles wins and a glut of medals.

“My family, coaches, team-mates and fans have accompanied me through many peaks and difficult troughs,” he said in a post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo that quickly went viral.

“Every forceful jump was a desire for victory.

“I have dedicated everything to this sport I love,” said the player who was also nicknamed “Super Dan.”

However, the left-hander’s career has tailed off in recent years as age and injuries took their toll.

He always said that he was determined to reach the Tokyo Olympics, but his ranking of 19 in the world and the postponement of the Games made that dream unlikely.

Lin had always maintained that he would try to make it a last Olympics hurrah in Tokyo in an unlikely bid for a third Olympic gold.

But he said on Saturday his body would not allow him to plough on.

“’Persevere’, I said to myself in every moment of suffering, so that my sporting career could be prolonged,” he wrote on Weibo.

“Rather than simply pursuing rankings as I did when I was younger, in these years, I have been wanting to challenge the physical limits of an ‘old’ athlete and practise the sporting spirit that I will never give up.

“(But) my physical abilities and pain no longer allow me to fight alongside my team-mates,” he added.

As of Saturday afternoon, a hashtag on Weibo about Lin’s retirement had been read at least 51 million times and praise for him poured in.

Bao Chunlai, who formerly represented China in badminton, said Lin’s retirement took him by surprise.

“It’s somewhat sudden, but understandable,” he wrote on Weibo.

“The last person of that generation who persevered has also walked to the ‘end’.

“My feelings are mixed. All the best, brother. The future will be better.”

Lin’s wife Xie Xingfang, also a former badminton world champion, wrote online: “The 20 years we have walked with each other.... will continue.

“Let us work hard together.”

Lin’s reputation was badly tainted in China in 2016 after it emerged he had an affair while Xie was pregnant. He apologised.

(With AFP inputs)