Last Sunday, in Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines, Anna Meares became the greatest female track cyclist of all time.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:39 PM

That line at least led Cycling Australia's release shortly after her breathless performance in the Women's Keirin, where at 31, she shrugged off her competition to win her 11th World Title, a mark that's never previously been surpassed in track cycling. Meares has taken world records, Olympic, Commonwealth and World Championship titles, she's had a longevity, that's made her a force over more than a decade, and, she could well do more before she retires. In short, she's an extraordinary athlete deserving of all the praise she's afforded.

But I'm always reticent to get swept away with the greatest, the best, particularly when it's further qualified, by the classic, 'of all time'. Comparisons, between sports, between athletes, between eras, are unsatisfying in their determination to simplify something down to a better or worse. They're compromised in their simplicity. More often that not weighted in the present, in what an author has seen and experienced - quickly forgetting history, ignoring context.

Were Frenchwoman Felicia Ballanger's achievements, a 10-time world champion on the track, eclipsed by Meares when the Australian struck gold again Sunday? In an absolute sense, where world titles are the metric, yes. But equally, Ballanger had a much shorter career. Consider, from 1995-1999 won the sprint and 500m TT world title every year, and retired on a high at 29 at the Sydney Olympic Games where she won dual gold. Ballanger was an incredible athlete, the preeminent sprinter of her generation on the boards, and in her own way, Meares, is in her own class in the years she raced.

As much as we might like, we can't line them up against eachother. We just can't. And thus "greatest" comes with a number of caveats which we can't address. It would have been more apt to simply say after Sunday, "Anna Meares further established herself as one of the greats of the sport". Which she did, and she continues to do, but you know, hyperbole.

It's like an old argument I used to have with my old school mates when, as is an Australian's rite of passage, I came across Sir Donald Bradman and "99.94". Bradman's prolific run-scoring and inspired technique throughout the 1930s, earned him a phenomenal batting average that's not even been close to rivalled in the year's since. But does that make him the greatest batsman cricket has ever seen, or might Sachin Tendulkar be compared in the same light. What about Viv Richards, Graeme Pollock, or Brian Lara? And was he the greatest cricketer? Do bowlers feature? What about Shane Warne or Wasim Akram? More broadly, is Rod Laver a better sportsman than Roger Federer? Was Murray Rose a more gifted swimmer than say, Kieran Perkins or Grant Hackett?

As furious as our arguments might be, as passionate or compelling as the case, we'd never arrive at a consensus, because ultimately there was none.

We have a predilection to try and compare and discern the best, the greatest, which is fine, but it's also impossible. We're driven by the headline, the best of the last 50 years, the most wins, the highest average, a new world record, the greatest, as we chase a form of comparison that can confirm the way we perceive someone, something, to be as impressive as we believe -- what a performance has inspired in us. But instead, rather than trying look at a benchmark and determine its significance, why not instead acknowledge the uniqueness of a performance, of a career, and heap praise on that?

To me, what makes Meares special is certainly, not any single number, "11 world titles", "two gold medals", but that she is who she is and has done what she's done. Her legend isn't amplified or dimmed by comparing her to Cadel Evans, to seeing how, for example, she's surpassed Felicia Ballanger. They're, perhaps, useful mental yardsticks, but nothing more. She's beyond compare, and that, really, is the greatest praise worth giving.