The Lymington yachtsman, whose victory at London 2012 in the Finn class saw him become the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, has four golds from successive Games plus a silver in the Laser class at the 1996 Olympics in his trophy cabinet.
He is also a 10-time World champion and has won the European title nine times.
Ainslie had the honour of being Team GB's flag bearer for the London 2012 Olympic Closing Ceremony and was picked to run the first leg of the London 2012 torch relay.
He is currently preparing to try and win the America's Cup.
Olympic and Paralympic champions dominate the shortlist for the annual award, won last year by cyclist Mark Cavenish. Tennis ace Andy Murray, cyclists Sir Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, athletes Mo Farah and David Weir, plus golfer Rory McIlroy are in the mix for the coveted top award.
Heptathlete Jessica Ennis, cyclist Sarah Storey, boxer Nicola Adams, swimmer Ellie Simmonds and rower Katherine Grainger are also in the running.
After a golden summer of home-grown sport including the London 2012 Games, the event promises to be the biggest in the programme's 59-year history.
It is being held at London's ExCeL centre on December 16.