Cyclists Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy, tennis star Andy Murray, and athletes Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah are candidates in a 12-strong list.
Paralympians Sarah Storey, Ellie Simmonds and David Weir also make the list for the award on 16 December.
Rower Katherine Grainger, golfer Rory McIlroy, boxer Nicola Adams and sailor Ben Ainslie are other hopefuls.
Three former Sports Personality nominees were on an expert panel which decided the shortlist, and the winner will be decided by a public vote on the night.
The panel was put together following criticism of an all-male list decided via a different method in 2011.
The 2000 winner Sir Steve Redgrave, Baroness Grey-Thompson and Denise Lewis were joined by Baroness Campbell, chair of UK Sport, and representatives from the BBC and the newspaper industry.
Presented by Sue Barker, Gary Lineker and Clare Balding, Sports Personality of the Year will be broadcast live on BBC One, BBC One HD and BBC Radio 5 live from 19:30 GMT.
A capacity crowd of 15,000 at the ExCel in London will make it the biggest show in the event’s 59-year history.
It will be a star-studded climax to 12 months of sport which saw London host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
With an array of candidates to choose from, the panel faced some difficult choices finalising the shortlist, which was extended from 10 to 12 to reflect a brilliant year for British sport.
Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour de France and followed up with Olympic time trial gold. Hoy won the team sprint and men’s keirin at London 2012 – his fifth and sixth gold medals overall – to beat the record for golds won by a British sportsman.
Murray clinched gold at the Games before ending Britain’s wait for a major tennis title with victory in the US Open, and McIlroy also triumphed across the Atlantic as he took the US PGA title, played in Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team and won the season-ending World Tour Championship.
2012 Sports Personality shortlist
- Olympic gold medallists: 8
- Paralympic gold medallists: 3
- Other: 1
- Men: 7 Women: 5
- Age range: 18 to 36
Such was the strength in depth of potential contenders that those to miss out include Olympic gold medallists Charlotte Dujardin, Greg Rutherford, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott and Alistair Brownlee, along with Europe’s Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter.
The expert panel will also choose the first, second and third places for the Team of the Year, Overseas Personality of the Year and Coach of the Year awards.
Chair of the panel, BBC Director of Sport Barbara Slater, said: “If we ever needed reminding just how special a sporting year it has been, then the list of those sportspeople who did not make the final 12 is testament to that.”
Other awards on the night will again be Young Sports Personality of the Year and Unsung Hero, which will continue to be decided by the existing specialist panel system – plus the Lifetime Achievement and Helen Rollason awards which will be decided by the board of BBC Sport.