Ilya Ilyin has brought his controversial career to an end ©Getty Images

Ilya Ilyin, the most controversial and arguably the most popular weightlifter of the 21st century, is retiring from the sport.

Ilyin, who will be 32 in three weeks, revealed his decision in an interview with the Kazakh newspaper and website Vesti today.

He said the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the uncertainties of training during quarantine, and the allocation of only one men’s place to Kazakhstan because of its past doping record had influenced his decision.

"It is not yet clear whether the Olympics will take place in 2021 so I can’t wait," Ilyin said.

"I loved weightlifting, having fun and transmitting energy to people. 

"Now it’s different… and I do not like it. 

"I do not want to do this."

Ilyin, who has nearly half a million followers on social media, said he had not yet made an official announcement but "a decision is made that it's time to leave".

Ilyin forfeited two Olympic gold medals, from Beijing 2008 and London 2012, after testing positive for stanozolol at both Games when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retested stored samples.

Because Kazakhstan had 10 positives in those retests it was restricted to only two quota places at Tokyo 2020, one male and one female.

The multiple world record holder was suspended for only two years in 2018 on a technicality - the positives were announced the wrong way round and therefore treated as only one doping violation - and he returned to the platform with high hopes of qualifying for Tokyo.

Four times a world champion, Ilya Ilyin was stripped of two Olympic gold medals ©Getty Images
Four times a world champion, Ilya Ilyin was stripped of two Olympic gold medals ©Getty Images

Ilyin’s comments today were in stark contrast to his confident declaration two years ago, when he returned from suspension saying he was chasing a medal at Tokyo 2020. 

"I’m raring to go," he declared. 

"I want to win!"

He was way below his pre-suspension best throughout Olympic qualifying, and admitted that he was only third in line behind Nijat Rahimov and Denis Ulanov.

Ilyin was a phenomenon as a boy, and competed against professional junior athletes when he was 10 years old.

He was unbeaten in the first 10 years of his career, which started with victory at 85 kilograms in the 2005 International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Junior World Championships in Busan in South Korea.

He won the first of four senior world titles in Qatari capital Doha later that year, and finished first in two Olympic Games.

Ilyin set world records at 94kg and 105kg, and gave what he considered to be his all-time best performance in Russia in 2015, a few months before his suspension began.

At 105kg in the Presidents Cup in Grozny he totalled 437kg, breaking world records in clean and jerk, and total.

In that period of a little more than 10 years Ilyin would frequently disappear from the competition calendar for spells of up to two years, averaging one international appearance per year.

In Olympic qualifying he could not do that, and he competed six times in the 10 months up to February this year, bowing out with a victory at the Solidarity Championships in Tashkent in Uzbekistan.

Although he was competing at a lower body weight he could never get within 70kg of that 2015 Grozny effort. 

He talked up his chances right to the end but he was never seriously in the running to qualify.

Nijat Rahimov is currently Kazakhstan's leading male lifter in Olympic qualifying ©Getty Images
Nijat Rahimov is currently Kazakhstan's leading male lifter in Olympic qualifying ©Getty Images

Ilyin had been hoping for one last major effort at the Asian Championships in April - but that event, like all the other continental championships, was postponed because of the pandemic.

"That was where the race stopped," he said. 

"There [at the Asian Championships] in category 102 I needed to raise 180 and 220, if everything went as it should. 

"The chances were low, but I was planning."

There was never any sign that Ilyin could make that 400kg target, as he never bettered 365kg in his first six qualifying contests. 

His chances, he said, were "0.1 per cent".

"My career is about to end. 

"It’s time to start a new life. 

"It is better to move on - this is not the end of life."

Ilyin is hugely popular in Kazakhstan and well connected politically, but he said he would not be going into politics.

"Perhaps I will lead some school in Kyzylorda, in my city. 

"I plan to open a weightlifting school. 

"I also have some creative projects in my head, which I will implement, since now I will have quite a lot of energy released. 

"I need to direct it somewhere in the right direction.

"I don’t want to get stuck in weightlifting until the age of 40 and then not know what’s next."