KUALA LUMPUR • As he began announcing his retirement, Lee Chong Wei paused for almost a minute as tears rolled down his cheeks.
"I fought for my country all the way," Malaysia's badminton king told a news conference at the Youth and Sports Minister's office in Putrajaya yesterday.
"It's my retirement day."
Lee, who spent a total of 348 weeks as world No. 1 but lost six world and Olympic finals, called time on a 19-year career after failing to regain full fitness following his successful treatment for nose cancer last year.
He returned to training in January with the goal of winning Malaysia's first Olympic gold medal in Tokyo next year. But months passed without any sign of him returning to competition. His ranking slipped to 191st in the world, erasing hopes that he would be able to qualify for Tokyo.
"It was a very heavy decision for me because I really love this sport, but the important thing now is my health," Lee said.
He later posted on Twitter: "I'm sorry that I couldn't make it to Tokyo this time around. And I'm sorry I didn't deliver an Olympic gold. But I know I've no regrets as I've tried my best. My very best. Thank you very much to all of you. Lee Chong Wei signing out."
Quiet and unassuming, Lee rose to become a badminton great, beloved by his fans despite his tantalising failures to bring home the biggest trophies of all.
His decision to walk away at the age of 36 robs the sport of one of its biggest draws and ends his rivalry with China's Lin Dan, his nemesis in four world and Olympic finals.
Lee was long expected to land Malaysia's maiden Olympic gold, but he repeatedly stuttered in the final, losing the 2008, 2012 and 2016 deciders to Lin and fellow Chinese Chen Long.
His highs and lows
Lee Chong Wei was jubilant when he first reached the top of the world rankings in 2006 at the age of 24, overtaking his great rival Lin Dan of China.
He spent a total of 348 weeks as world No. 1, including 199 straight from August 2008 to June 2012 - arguably his finest achievement.
In August 2008, Lee reached the Olympic men's singles final in Beijing, raising hopes he would bring home Malaysia's first Olympic gold medal.
However, he was well beaten by Lin, who thrilled the home fans with a straight-games victory.
It set an unfortunate pattern for Lee, who also lost to his nemesis in the 2012 final, and missed out again in the 2016 decider - this time to China's Chen Long.
Lee was also a runner-up in three world championship finals - against Lin in 2011 and 2013, and Chen in 2015 - and retires without winning either of the sport's two biggest prizes.
He has, however, eight major gold medals to his name - five Commonwealth Games, two Asian Championships and one SEA Games, and has also won the All England title four times.
Lee's career hit its nadir in 2014 when he tested positive for a banned anti-inflammatory at the world championships. He was subsequently stripped of his silver medal, which he won after losing to Chen in the final.
Badminton authorities eventually accepted his explanation that he took the drug accidentally during stem-cell treatment for a thigh injury.
But the incident sidelined him for eight months and sent him plunging down the world rankings.
A patchy season for Lee last year became a disaster when he was diagnosed with early-stage nose cancer in July.
After intensive treatment in Taiwan, Lee resumed training in January. However, a return to full fitness eluded him and, with his hopes of reaching next year's Olympics slipping away, Lee tearfully announced his retirement yesterday.
He had an almost identical record at the world championships, losing twice to Lin and once to Chen in 2011, 2013 and 2015 respectively.
It means that despite 705 wins and 69 titles - including five Commonwealth Games gold medals, four All England victories and a record 47 Superseries triumphs - Lee's career will be remembered for its disappointments.
Lin posted to his four million followers on China's Twitter-like Weibo: "I will be alone on the (badminton) court and no one will accompany me."
The 35-year-old also posted a link to a Chinese ballad called Friends Don't Cry.
"Lin Dan and myself are rivals on the court but, outside the court, we are close friends," Lee said when asked about their rivalry. "I hope Lin Dan will play in the Tokyo Olympics. But he faces challenges from younger players."
Cancer proved the career-ending blow, but it wasn't the only low for Lee, who was banned after testing positive for an illegal anti-inflammatory at the 2014 world championships. He returned to the sport in 2015, after authorities accepted he took the drug inadvertently.
"I have no regrets. More important is my health, the decision to retire is very tough," said Lee, adding that his cancer treatment was now over.
"My plan to retire was originally after the Olympic Games. I made this decision due to my health."
Lee is famed for his intense training and has made clear his feverish desire for an Olympic gold during his gruelling workouts. With a dazzling array of weapons ranging from lightning-quick defence to powerful, deep smashes, he would spend hours daily honing his skills.
It would make him a national hero in Malaysia, which has few world-class athletes. In a sign of his status, his 2012 marriage to former national singles player Wong Mew Choo was attended by the country's king, queen and prime minister.
Malaysian sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman described Lee as "a hero to all Malaysians... someone like him comes once in a lifetime".
Lee said he was looking forward to life post-retirement and planned to take his wife on a long-overdue honeymoon.
"My career is like a roller coaster, up and down," the father of two said. "I think this is the time for me to take a rest, take my wife for a holiday."
While he will no longer be competing, Lee said he will still be heading to Tokyo next year as Malaysia's chef de mission for the Olympics.
"I couldn't get (the gold medal), but I hope Malaysian athletes can get one gold for Malaysia - that will also be my dream," he said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
NAME: Lee Chong Wei
CAREER RECORD: 705 wins, 134 losses
CAREER TITLES: 69
I'll be alone on court now and there's nobody to accompany me from now on.
LIN DAN, China's two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion, pays tribute to his long-time rival on Weibo.
You have inspired everyone who loves badminton, you will always be a hero for all of us! Thank you for all these years @LeeChongWei.
CAROLINA MARIN, Spain's reigning Olympic champion and three-time world champion, on Twitter.
The strongest opponent is the best partner. We will never forget the excitement you bring on court. Even though you have left the game, your spirit will live on.
CAI YUN, 2012 Olympics men's doubles champion who won the 2017 Badminton Asia Elite Tour doubles title with Lee.
Really loved ur performances for many years @LeeChongWei... ur great badminton legend and it's very sad to know that ur retiring... I wish u the best for future and pls take care of ur health.
SAINA NEHWAL, Indian shuttler and former world No. 1, on Twitter.
My respect to the great Chong Wei.
CHEN LONG, reigning Olympic champion, on Weibo