Before the Asian Games were held, a gathering known as the Far Eastern Games existed which was first mooted in 1912 at a location set between the Empire of Japan, the Philippine Islands, and China. The Far Eastern Games were first held in Manila in 1913. Ten more Far Eastern Games were held until 1934. Against the backdrop of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1934, in the face of Japan's insistence on including Manchu Empire as a competitor nation in the Games, China announced its withdrawal from participation. Consequently, the Far Eastern Games scheduled for 1938 were cancelled. The organization was ultimately discontinued thereafter.
After World War II, a number of Asian countries became independent. Many of the newly independent Asian countries desired the formation of a new type of competition whereby Asian dominance was not expressed through violence, but instead strengthened through mutual understanding. During the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, a conversation between sportsmen from China and the Philippines raised the idea of restoring the Far Eastern Games. However, Guru Dutt Sondhi, the Indian International Olympic Committee representative, did not believe that restoration of the Far Eastern Games would sufficiently display the spirit of unity and level of achievement taking place in Asian sports. As a result, he proposed to sports leaders the idea of having a wholly new competition - which came to be the Asian Games. This led to an agreement to form the Asian Athletic Federation. A preparatory committee was then set up to draft the charter for this new body. On 13 February 1949, the Asian Athletic Federation was formally inaugurated in New Delhi, alongside the name Asian Games Federation, with New Delhi announced as the first host city of the Asian Games which were scheduled to be held in 1950.
In 1970, South Korea dropped its plan to host the Games allegedly due to national security crisis, however the main reason was due to financial crisis, forcing the previous host Thailand to administer the Games again in Bangkok using funds transferred from South Korea. Prior to the Games, Japan was asked to host the Games, but declined due to Expo '70 in Osaka. This edition also marked the first time the Games have a television broadcasting throughout the world. In 1974, the Games formally recognized the participation of China, North Korea and Mongolia. Israel was allowed to participate despite the opposition from Arab world, while Taiwan was permitted to take part despite its status was abolished in general meeting on 16 November 1973 by Games Federation.
The last is 1978, Pakistan dropped its plan to host the Games in 1975 due to financial crisis and political issues. Thailand offered to help and the Games were once again held in Bangkok. However, once again, like in 1962, Taiwan and Israel were refused the participation by Games Federation, amid political issues and security fears. Several governing bodies protested against the ban, like IAAF, threatened to bar the participating players from 1980 Summer Olympics, this caused several teams to withdraw prior to the Games.
Following this series of crises, the National Olympic Committee in Asia decided to revise the constitution of the Asian Games Federation. A new association, named the Olympic Council of Asia, was created in November 1981 with the exclusion of Israel. India was already scheduled to host the 1982 Games and the OCA decided not to drop the old AGF timetable. The OCA formally supervised the Games starting with the 1986 Asian Games in South Korea. In the succeeding Games, Taiwan (Republic of China) was re-admitted, but was forced by the People's Republic of China to compete under the name Chinese Taipei.
The number of competition events is scheduled to shrink down to just 35 sports at the 2014 Games to be held in Incheon, South Korea. 2014 will also see the last Games hosted in an even-numbered year, as the Olympic Council of Asia pushed the subsequent Games to just one year ahead of the Olympic Games. This means the 18th Asian Games which were originally planned for 2018 will be pushed to 2019.
All 45 members affiliated to the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) are eligible to take part in the Games. In history, 46 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) have sent competitors to the Games. Israel has been excluded from the Games since 1976, the reason cited as being due to security reasons. Israel requested to participate in the 1982 Games, but the request was rejected by the organizers due to incident in 1972 Summer Olympics. Israel is now a member of the European Olympic Committees (EOC).
Due to its continuing ambiguous political status, Taiwan has participated in the Games under the flag of Chinese Taipei since 1990. Macau is allowed to compete as one of the NOCs in Asian Games, despite not being recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for participation in the Olympic Games.
In 2007, the President of OCA, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, rejected the proposal to allow Australia to participate in the Games. He stated that while Australia would add good value to the Asian Games, it would be unfair to the other NOCs in Oceania.
Of the 46 National Olympic Committees participating throughout the history of the Games, 43 nations have won at least a single medal in the competition, leaving three nations: Bhutan, Maldives and Timor-Leste yet to win a single medal. 34 nations have won at least a single gold medal, while Japan and China became the only two nations in history to emerge as overall champions.
On 8 November 2012, the OCA decided at its 31st General Assembly in Macau to create a special multi-sport event called Asian Games Centennial Festival in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Oriental Games (later became Far Eastern Championship Games). OCA awarded the Philippines the hosting rights as it was the same host 100 years ago. The event was originally scheduled to be held in Boracay Island, Malay, Aklan on 27 to 29 November 2013 but due to the tragedy that struck the country it was moved to January 2014.