Before the Asian Games were held, a gathering known as the Far Eastern Championship 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 with 6 participating nations. 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
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 continue taking part (as "Chinese Taipei" 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 China to compete under the name Chinese Taipei.
In 1994, the Games included the former republics of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for the first time. It was also the first time that the Games had been held outside the capital city of the host country. However, Iraq was suspended from the Games due to the Persian Gulf War in 1990, while North Korea boycotted the Games due to political issues. It was also marred by the death of Nepalese delegation Nareshkumar Adhikari during the Games' opening ceremony. The 1998 Games marked the fourth time the Games had been held in Bangkok, Thailand. The fourth opening ceremony occurred on 6 December, compared to 9 December for the previous 3. All four games were opened by H.M.King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The date of the closing ceremony remained as 20 December for all 4 games hosted by Thailand.
According to membership in the OCA, transcontinental Kazakhstan participates in the Asian Games but Egypt does not, participating in the All-Africa Games instead. Various countries participating in the European Games rather than the Asian Games are partially or fully in Asia: Turkey, Russia (major parts in Asia); Azerbaijan, Georgia (almost completely in Asia); Cyprus, Armenia, Israel (fully in Asia).
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).
Taiwan, Palestine, Hong Kong, and Macau participate in the Asian Games according to membership in OCA. Due to its continuing ambiguous political status, Taiwan participates in the Games under the flag of Chinese Taipei since 1990. Macau NOC 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.
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. 37 nations have won at least one gold medal (only Japan and India have done so at every Asian Games), 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 events surrounding Typhoon Haiyan, it was moved to January 2014.