An athlete who forced her way into the New Zealand Olympic squad is today beginning a two-year drug suspension for "a deliberate act of cheating".

US-based marathon runner Liza Hunter-Galvan yesterday admitted using the banned drug erythropoietin (EPO) three times, saying she did not realise it was illegal.

But Drug Free Sport chief executive Graeme Steel said last night that Hunter-Galvan knew what she was doing.

He described her actions as "a deliberate act of cheating" which harmed the image of New Zealand sport.

"Athletes like Sarah Ulmer, Hamish Carter, the [Evers-Swindell] twins and Valerie Vili not only compete cleanly, but go to extra lengths to promote clean sport," he said.

"That is an important image for New Zealand athletes, and if relatively high-profile and well-performed athletes choose to cheat, that puts a significant dent at the image they work hard to create," Mr Steel said.

The Sports Tribunal yesterday suspended the Olympic and Commonwealth Games athlete for two years, after a second "B" sample tested positive for EPO, a natural hormone that regulates the production of red blood cells.

Artificial EPO increases the level of red blood cells and improves athletes' performance in endurance events.

Hunter-Galvan had an out-of-competition drug test on March 23.

A laboratory report on May 21 said the "A" sample showed EPO.

The two-year ban is backdated to May 29, the date of her provisional suspension.

Hunter-Galvan is the first New Zealand athlete to fail a drug test since Russian-born pole vaulter Denis Petouchinsky tested positive for the steroid stanozolol and was stripped of the silver medal he won at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

He was also banned from athletics for four years.

In a statement issued through Californian athletics lawyer Howard Jacobs, Hunter-Galvan, a mother of four, said she accepted full responsibility for her actions.

She said that in February, she discussed injectable vitamins and amino acids with a male athlete, who recommended a product called Recormon.

The next day, she bought Recormon over the counter at a pharmacy. Soon after, she researched the product and found it was a brand of EPO.

Hunter-Galvan used Recormon on February 26, March 13 and March 20, three days before the drug test.

She decided to stop using it because of unidentified adverse side-effects that made her fear for her health and what she was doing.

Mr Jacobs said Hunter-Galvan regretted her actions and ultimately admitted the offence to help other athletes avoid making the same mistake.

She had competed clean for her entire career until this incident, he said.

The statement also referred to Hunter-Galvan's difficulties making last year's Olympic team and the subsequent debrief with Athletics New Zealand that left her "experiencing symptoms of mental anguish".

After her exclusion from the team, Hunter-Galvan took her grievance to the Sports Tribunal and won. Athletics NZ reviewed her case and put her name forward to the NZ Olympic Committee selectors, who approved her selection. She came only 35th in Beijing.

Athletics NZ chief executive Scott Newman said the two-year suspension, at age 40, could spell the end of Hunter-Galvan's career.

Endurance athletes could compete into their forties, he said, but it would be up to her to find the motivation to continue.

Former Olympic silver medallist Dick Quax said it was "sad a New Zealand athlete has chosen to cheat".

"If you're going to take drugs, it's inevitable with the testing that goes on that you're going to get caught."

Quax thought it was a good lesson for all athletes that drug use was wrong.

* Recormon contains EPO (erythropoietin), a natural hormone that regulates the production of red blood cells.

* Artificial EPO increases the level of red blood cells and improves athletes' performance for endurance events.